Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Libertarian Challenge

Author’s Note: I began writing this with the intention of posting it on the party website of the Scottish Libertarians, unfortunately as I explored these ideas it grew and grew.  On account of the length and possibly some controversial points I decided to post it here instead.  This may change should party members deem it appropriate for the  party site.

Nearly one year ago I agreed to the post of party leader for the Scottish Libertarians. At first it was easy. The job was all about laying the foundations. This is the party image, this is the party organisation, this is the party platform, and here is our webpage. Then things got difficult. We were all dressed-up, but where should we go?

I started thinking about what we as a party needed to do. Libertarians are great when it comes to criticising government economic and social policy. The mass media is rife with examples of things to complain about. We also have a talent for proposing theories of how things should function, or bringing-up historical examples of things that worked and where things went wrong. There is also plenty of information on economic policies from libertarians and their think tanks. Oh, and let’s not forget the internal and external arguments of how things should be. What’s missing is action.

In this last United States presidential election, the libertarian Republican Ron Paul created quite a stir and gathered a passionate following, but failed to gain the nomination (partly due to GOP trickery). The Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson received just over a million votes, which was one of the best showings in party history, meanwhile President Obama won with just over 50 million and Romney lost by just under the same figure. So what did the American libertarians do? They followed the standard playbook for the modern elections. They campaigned, debated, and lost to both parties 100 million to one.

In the face of such disappointment, the question becomes “What are we as libertarians to do?” I see two challenges facing the movement. One involves changing public awareness and the other is about preparing ourselves to manage that change if and when it comes.

Challenge 1: Invisible Slavery and the Slave Mind

The primary message of libertarians is liberty. This means each individual may choose their actions free from outside force or coercion. To a libertarian, the opposite of freedom is slavery. What people fail to grasp is that slavery is insidious – something seemingly harmless but to grave affect.

During the entire history of slavery in America there were only half a dozen slave uprisings despite the large percentage of slaves and freed slaves. This is a shocking figure because it is difficult for us to comprehend with our modern mindset how accepted the institution of slavery was in society.

There are two reasons for this. For one, humans have an incredible capacity for self-subjugation. History shows black slaves in North America and white slaves in North Africa assuming the same docile and servile attitude and they perceived the goals of their master to be their own. In exchange, he provides all the necessities of life. This is the second reason. On the plantations, the slaves were accorded numerous privileges of free movement and entertainment, provided they showed-up for work sober and ready. It was also common for slaves to be allowed to keep excess crops which they sold for some spending money. Thrifty slaves even purchased their freedom and some even went on to own slaves themselves.

Of the handful of slave rebellions, the two most famous were those of Nat Turner and John Brown. Turner was by all accounts a model slave who claimed to have a great love for his master, but he had divine visions instructing him to rise-up when a sign was given. He read an eclipse as the sign and went on a murder spree with a few friends that eventually grew to about forty slaves. Most were killed by local militia, some turned on their comrades, and eventually Turner was put to death. To me the interesting thing about Turner is that this clearly deranged individual did what we today would consider to be the only sane act given the institution of slavery, but at the time it was deemed a part of his madness.

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry is part of American legend. He had planned to attack the town of Harper’s Ferry with his band of white abolitionist and a few blacks, take control of the armoury, arm the slaves there to bolster his ranks, and strike a blow for freedom. The slaves did not rise-up to join him and he lost. Brown’s story ends at the gallows.

For those who saw slavery as an injustice, John Brown was a martyr who gave his life in a fight for freedom. For those who could not conceive anything wrong with slavery, as was the mainstream point of view for centuries, then John Brown was a domestic terrorist. Likewise, Nat Turner was a religious fanatic reminiscent of David Koresh in Waco or any number of Muslim extremist. Nat Turner and his band slaughtered men, women, and children because God told him to, but for many he is a hero for his rebellion against slavery because we see slavery as immoral.

The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau observed that society is driven by the General Will of the people. This is not the will of the majority, but rather a sort of gestalt produced by the interactions of each individual’s will. It is similar, if not the same, as zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age. The General Will may not be based on majority opinion, but the majority view has the power to create the accepted narrative of what people consider being “normal”. Anything outside the normal is viewed as backward, stupid, corrupt, weird, or even evil. When the General Will holds the narrative that slavery is the acceptable norm, then any call for liberty is fringe at best and evil at worst. In fact, those people socially conditioned to the norm cannot even conceive how something like slavery is wrong.

Another place to look is the American War of Independence. Americans make a big deal over their country and its history. Fact is that until the early part of the last century no one really cared. The American victory was the back page story in the first edition of the Glasgow Herald. The United Kingdom drew more revenue by far from Jamaica then from all of the Thirteen Colonies combined. Because of their limited value, Britain pretty much ignored British North America, and as a result the colonies established their own local governments that ran for centuries. Then the Seven Years War happened.

This was the first truly global war fought between Great Britain and France. In North America, it was known as the French-Indian War. When it was over, Britain expected the colonies to pay their share of the cost of defending them and levied small taxes to this purpose. These were the taxes that led to events such as the Boston Tea Party. The fact is that due to changes in the East India Company, tea in Boston had never been cheaper, even with the tax (which had just dropped from one shilling to three pence per pound). The Tea Party was not a protest over the amount of tax. It was a protest over the right to tax. Also, it was not merely a protest. It was an act of destruction with £10,000 worth of property destroyed. Based on average earnings, that is about £15 million in today’s currency.

To truly understand history and learn its lessons, we must imagine a world where we have a personal investment in the story. So imagine a group of fringe protestors complaining about a tax on iPads. For you, the amount of the tax is so trivial that you do not care, and even if you did care, you know that there is nothing that you can do about it so just accept it. Then you read in the paper that a group of protestors broke into a warehouse and destroyed a recent shipment of iPads worth £15 million. How would you feel? Especially when you planned on buying one. So how does this news story strike you? Were the protestor’s actions a bit extreme?

The average New Englander in 1773 had a better standard of living than an Old Englander. By the same token, the average slave on a Southern plantation had a better living standard than a free Northern factory worker, but after the American Civil War the former slaves were even worse off economically. So if one judges a living standard as the sole measure of good, then there was no reason to rebel against either the government or the plantation system.

The challenge facing libertarians is that the General Will of the people accepts as the norm what we as libertarians consider slavery. Our protests are ignored because people have so deeply accepted their condition that they do not see themselves as slaves.

The demonization of the institution of slavery has clouded the issue in people’s minds. If you see slavery as a state of bondage, chains, and regularly whippings, then no, we are not slaves. However, when you recognise that slaves were given a great many liberties provided they showed-up for work, it does not look that different from our current situation where rights, the right to actions, are viewed as being allowed by the State rather than being inherent.

People do not want to rock the boat that they are standing in or willing to bite the hand that feeds them, at least until the boat starts sinking and the food runs out. Until that time, if it ever occurs, libertarians will continue denouncing a slavery invisible to all but themselves and thus remain on the fringe.

Challenge 2: The Will to Fight for Freedom

There are five primary tools in the box when it comes to resolving conflict. The first four are avoidance, accommodation, compromise, and collaboration. Avoidance and accommodation are self-evident. The difference between compromise and collaboration is that in a compromise both parties lose something, but in collaboration we are looking for the win/win resolution. The fifth tool is the hammer – force.

Thomas Jefferson said, "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."!" A version of this quote has become popular among libertarians as taken from the film V for Vendetta. "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people."

So how do we instil fear in the government? How about we write a strongly worded letter to our representatives, perhaps make a Youtube video, and if we can get enough people together, then we can march around carrying signs for a few hours and shout at them. That should put the fear into them.

What many libertarians do not seem to understand is that liberty is about power. It is a cliché to say, “Power to the people”, but that’s what libertarianism is. We seek to remove power from the State and redistribute it among smaller and smaller groups all the way down to the individual. People with power, as well as those dependent on that power, do not want this redistribution. Looking at history, it is very very rare for any person or body to relinquish power voluntarily. It is taken by force, not negotiation or peaceful protest.

Take the average bureaucrat backed by the power of the State, its laws, and its law enforcers. Do you think he fears the petitioner begging the government to get off his back? Of course not.

I’m from Los Angeles. Back in the 1980’s there was a rash of shootings on the freeways there. The result is that people became more courteous drivers. Manners and common courtesy were born of fear as any insulting behaviour may result in a duel and your death. Even now we use the phrase, “teach him some manners” as a euphemism for getting into a fight.

Now suppose a local city government is pushing forward some kind of legislation that will result in someone losing their home. A man attends all the council meetings stating his case, but is continually ignored, even while he is speaking. After all, he has no power, so why care what he thinks. The resolution passes and the man is left destitute. So he arms himself to the teeth, goes into city hall, and massacres ten men and women before killing himself. The news portrays him as a loner and a psychopath denouncing his evil and mindless act of violence. What is lost in translation is that this was an act of rebellion.

When the number of people with nothing to lose due to a sense of powerlessness reaches critical mass, it erupts into revolution. Until that time, if it ever occurs, what you have are sporadic rebellions. These isolated incidences are easily dismissed as the work of deranged or evil individuals, like Nat Turner, John Brown, or arguably Timothy McVeigh. These rebels are so convinced of their rectitude that they assume others see the world as they see it and are only awaiting opportunity, but alas the people failed to rise. They are so conditioned to their invisible slavery that it is easier to dismiss these violent incidences as acts of evil, insanity, or terrorism.

Revolutions are messy affairs sparked more by rage than ideology; nonetheless a narrative eventually emerges in the inferno. Rage precedes ideology. People choose to fight and later the intellectuals put a label on it. Think of revolutions as lower-class rage wrapped-up in middle-class values funded by upper-class ambition.

Here’s a modern example from the London riots of August 2011 taken from The Metro newspaper:

The 17-year-olds were drinking stolen rosé wine at 9.30am yesterday as they laughed about the previous night’s disturbances in south London and made vague complaints about ‘rich people’.

One told the BBC: ‘Everyone was just on a riot, going mad, chucking things, chucking bottles – it was good, though.’

Her friend added: ‘Breaking into shops – it was madness, it was good fun.’

One of the girls bragged about ‘getting a couple of free things’, before insisting: ‘It’s the government’s fault. I don’t know. Conservatives, whoever it is. It’s the rich people who’ve got businesses and that’s why all this happened.’

They said further crimes would ‘hopefully’ follow.

These girls hardly seem the heralds of revolution, but consider that the Boston Massacre of 1770 was instigated by a group of drunken men emerging from the pub who thought it would be quite fun to throw shit (literally) at the soldiers on guard duty. In the nervous pandemonium the soldiers opened fire killing the men. They were later exonerated in court, but the incident was still used to fuel the revolution.

In the case of these two girls, they are not exactly politically astute, but they are parroting a message – a socialist one. Indeed, these fun-fuelled attacks on small business owners in a poor community were transformed in some media circles as the people rising against capitalist oppression. Rage, or in this case opportunistic, destructive fun, precedes ideology.

Libertarians have the ideology, its precedents, and their arguments, but this is all just polite, middle-class, socio-political economic theory. Nice people do not instil fear, but is important to remember that fear and respect are linguistically linked.

Here is how the pattern usually plays out. The revolutionaries of the polite middle-class intellectuals incite the poor to anger and they act on their rage violently. In the midst of the chaos the revolutionaries condemn such violent behaviour in the media, but then add that such problems should be expected given the current state of affairs. This way they keep their hands clean while still achieving their purpose.

Libertarians seem to lack this understanding of revolution. They seem to think that by simply making their intellectual case that the day will be won through peaceful and rational discourse and the ballot box. History shows this rarely if ever wins the day.

I am by no means advocating or encouraging violence or bloody revolution in pointing-out this historical pattern. I am illustrating that libertarians lay-out all their tools for conflict resolution on the table, but leave the hammer in box. We speak of fighting for freedom, but we mean only metaphoric fighting because literally fighting would be too risky and messy. People with power do not fear metaphoric threats.

American libertarians are always speaking of their right to bear arms as a defence against the government. The fact is that owning a gun will not protect you against the local cops let alone the might of the US government. To put the American War of Independence into a modern context, local militias would need to be armed with F-22 Raptors and tomahawk missiles to pose a threat. In a modern revolution, the hammer becomes a dangerous tool to wield because the opposition has more and bigger hammers, but that does not mean it should be left entirely in the box.


I see two challenges facing the global liberty movement. One is invisible slavery and the other is the willingness to fight that slavery. The only people who respond to the message of liberty are those people who recognise the existence of slavery, the absence of freedom. Speaking out against invisible monsters is crazy, but it’s even crazier to fight them. That only makes you look like an evil psychopath.

For the Classicists, I would say that we are living on the Island of the Lotus Eaters, but for the more modern audience, let’s just call it The Matrix. People go about their lives working, loving, and entertaining themselves completely unaware that they are nothing more than a battery powering a system. They have enough without realising that they could have more, the more that is being taken from them.

Now suppose you convince people of their slavery, what then? White people are often condemned for the institution of slavery in America, but truth be told the fault does not lie entirely there. First, there were very few slave uprisings on account of the slave mentality, which is partly inherent in human nature but was also encouraged by the white masters. Secondly, of the few uprisings many slaves took arms to defend their masters from other slaves. This is due in part to the afore mentioned slave mentality, but also slaves do not like other slaves acting above their station. All slaves are equally slaves. Some slaves may be granted special privileges for services rendered or special punishments for misdeeds, but no slave likes to see another slave demanding more than they themselves are willing to accept.

This demonstrates that convincing people that they are slaves is only part of the battle. Beyond that some people perceive themselves to be benefitting from their slavery and are more than willing to defend it even with the knowledge of their status. Others have a risk aversion. They do not want to lose what they have got. I know a few libertarians who took jobs in the public sector and any anti-government activism could threaten that. This is no ill judgement on them, but simply a fact of life.

Then there is the issue of violence. Intellectually, I can see the necessity. In the heat of passion, I may call for it. However, like most libertarians I am not violent by nature or willing to take what I consider foolish risks that may jeopardise my own little comfort niche. So what is to be done?

I consider myself to be a Nineteenth Century kind of guy, in other words we need to fight. However, the vast majority of my fellow libertarians are more Twentieth Century, this means holding protest rallies, handing-out literature, getting into the mainstream media, and electing libertarians into public office. Then there is the growing Twenty-first Century approach. This involves internet postings, blogs, and chat room debates. Finally, there is the Apocalypse non-approach. This group foresees the inevitable collapse of the current system under its own weight, similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and figures that nothing can be done except to brace yourself for the inevitable crash and let libertarianism rise from the ashes.

As I ponder my leadership role I find myself torn because I agree with all of these approaches while at the same time cannot advocate any of them because their efficacy eludes me. Do we fight? Sure, but fight who and to what benefit? Protests don’t work and the mainstream media will tell their story not ours. Any politicians we elect will be grossly outnumbered and may even go native. The internet is wonderful, but like the protests it is full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The duck and cover scenario makes sense, but at the same time seems too nihilistic and escapist.

Whenever I get stuck like this there are two places I go. One is back to basics and the other is collaboration. The first looks at human nature and the other looks for the win/win relationship between all these conflicting ideas.

Humans are small group animals and civilization begins with a gang that becomes a tribe united by common purpose. So the solution is for libertarians to form their gangs. Ignore the big set pieces. You cannot change the world or your country and you probably cannot even challenge your city council effectively. What you can do is form immediate relationships. By immediate I mean people at hand, so do not count your Facebook friends thousands of miles away. Once you found your gang, then start doing things together. Go to the pub, see a movie, or find some physical activity. The important thing is building the relationships. What everyone will naturally bring to the table is their beliefs and their friends. The beliefs provide the common purpose and the friends bring recruits.

As for purpose, the goal of every libertarian should be freedom. Not freedom from oppression since most slaves are not literally oppressed with whips, chains, and imprisonment and thus do not see themselves as oppressed. Just freedom from slavery. The first step in this is simply to nudge people to anger. In sales this is called, “pushing the bruise”. It is better for people to be angry than afraid. If you see an opportunity to speak out against the current system in your daily life, then do it.

Another part of this local tribal approach is children. The dominant ideology today got there not by protests or revolution but by taking over the education system. I tend to avoid children, but if you like the little rugrats, then go be a role model for them as a libertarian.

Finally, I do not advocate violence, but do not be afraid to get your hands a little dirty. Feel free to vandalise propaganda either from the government or from rival ideologies or special interest groups. There is no need for their lies to go unchallenged. If perchance some rebel commits some horrible act, then denounce it, but do not be afraid to insinuate that the guy may have had a point there. You do not have to use the hammer, but do not be afraid to put in on the table alongside the other tools for conflict resolution.

I am not implying that libertarians should reject the traditional approaches to political activism. Right now that’s all we’ve got. Simply that the primary focus should be community. If all the libertarians scattered throughout the world started just looking after their own little monkeysphere, then chances are that the change we are looking for will eventually take care of itself as local groups grow, expand, and potentially join other groups.

It could be said that the greatest challenge facing libertarians is a lack of several forms of power; we lack the money, the influence, the numbers, and the guns, all of which the opposition has in abundance. I think the challenge has more to do with the General Will. Either way, we should do what groups in our position have done in the past. Be the gang of rebels and outsiders nipping at the heels of an unjust system in hopes that our example will inspire the people to rise.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Assassin's Creed: Seek This Symbol

When people ask me what I write, I answer, “the cultural history and philosophy of the Romantic Era from 1776-1929”. Since philosophy covers metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, I write about all these subjects as they pertain to the Romantic. Yet my most popular article by far is a critique of Assassin’s Creed focusing particularly on the ideas expressed in the game Assassin’s Creed 2.2, titled “Brotherhood”. I am currently on my second play-through of the latest release, Assassin’s Creed 3 and I thought that I would take a moment and share some ideas.

When any aesthetic expression is put into the world certain people are drawn to it but for very personal and often unique reasons. This game series has fans all over the world, but I doubt that very many see what I see. Likewise, I may see things beyond whatever was conceived by the creative team behind it.

As with any work of art, it is whatever we want it to be provided our perception can be supported by the work itself. So if I am a fan of the series because of the game play, sure that’s there. Or if I think the characters are cool, yes, that is there too. But if I like it because I think it promotes homosexuality, then I may be going out on a limb, because that’s really not there, at least as far as I can see.

What I want to write about here is a scene in the latest game that gave me chills, but first some background information for the uninitiated. A key aspect of the story running throughout the games is the “Ones Who Came Before” and the artefacts they left behind. Basically, they are an ancient advanced civilization who lived on Earth and bioengineered slaves to serve them, also known as us humans, and were the origin of the divine pantheons of many cultures. Their civilization was destroyed by a massive solar flare and the few survivors were forced to interbreed with the surviving humans. You did not need to have this lineage to be a member of the Assassin Brotherhood, but the top Assassins were. This ancient DNA allowed them to utilize artefacts, such as the Apples of Eden, without being corrupted by them.

I should note, there will be spoilers in this article. You have been warned.

In Assassin’s Creed 3, we learn that at least two of the ancient ones had essentially downloaded their consciousness into a sort of internet linking various artefacts and temples. Through these they acted as “spirits” manipulating the course of human events, primary through the conflicting secret societies of the Assassins and the Templars. These two entities are first discovered in Renaissance Italy and identify themselves as Minerva and Juno.

Minerva is the Roman name for the goddess Athena and is associated with wisdom, tactics, invention, commerce, and freedom. Forms of Athena/Minerva include Britannia and the Statue of Liberty. So we could say that she represents the Assassins.

Juno is the Roman equivalent of Hera, the wife of Jupiter/Zeus. She is the goddess of matrimony and motherhood. In other words, social order and therefore represents the ideology of the Knights Templar.

In the story, one of the temples housing Juno’s consciousness is in a sealed cave in up-state New York and protected by a tribe of Mohawk. The existence of the temple is discovered by members of the Knights Templar who are looking to remove the natives and open the sealed doors, but Juno wants to prevent such a premature activation of the temple. She makes contact with a young Mohawk boy who inherited from his British father the ancient gene of the Assassins. During his communion with Juno via an ancient artefact she shows him the insignia of the Assassins and tells him to “Seek This Symbol”. That is where I got the chills. Here’s why.

There are two kinds of people in the world. There is us and them. Humans are by nature small group animals with about 100-150 people in a group. We can say that what binds them together are familial ties, but that is superficial. Values are those things we act to gain or to keep. These values are determined by beliefs, and the habits required to attain these values are called virtues. When beliefs, values, and virtues are shared by members of a group we say that they have a common purpose. This is the glue that binds humans together as a couple, a family, a gang, a tribe, and a nation. We might even call it love.

All of these things, beliefs, values, virtues, shared purpose, and levels of group identity, are all abstracts. They have no physicality. So we manifest them as symbols. A symbol is not merely the representation of an ideology, but also of the group that adheres to that ideology. This is why the desecration of a symbol invokes such wrath. We love our symbols because they symbolise our love, our love of ourselves as part of the group we identify as us.

Humans may be small group animals by nature, but we no longer live in small groups. The groups we form are within the context of a larger group all filled with numerous other groups divided along a myriad of largely superficial lines, like race, national origin, religion, politics, and even cultural consumption. The result is that symbols lose their exclusivity to us. Anyone can impose any meaning, be it great or trivial, upon a symbol as they utilise it according to their fancy. A person may wear a cross for a number of reasons without any of them signifying identification with the beliefs, values, or virtues of Christians as a group.

Ubisoft, the company behind the Assassin’s Creed series, has made the symbol for the Assassin Brotherhood readily available in numerous forms, from jewellery, to belt buckles, to decals. What this says is, “I like the game Assassins Creed.” But there is more to it.

Within the context of the game’s story the symbol represents a secret society. It is a gang of men and women who have dedicated themselves to a system of beliefs, values, and virtues. Through this there is a common purpose and a brotherhood. Now suppose players of the game once exposed to this ideology find that they share these beliefs, values, and virtues. Does it not stand to reason that they will invest their emotions in the symbol as well? At this point the symbol transcends, “I like the game Assassin’s Creed” and becomes “I believe in the Assassin’s Creed”. The transition is made from art into life.

So let’s look at the symbol itself. First though, I need to give a brief disclaimer. I have no idea how the designers at Ubisoft came to create this symbol. I do not know their intentions, inspirations, or any meanings that they subscribe to it. What I am presenting here is just my opinion and the ideology that I have emotionally invested in it.

You may notice that the symbol looks like the letter “A”.  Sure, we can say A for Assassin.  We could also say A for Atheist.  The creed, “Nothing is True; Everything is permitted” as first expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an attack on belief, which historically has been used to control people, and in a general sense it rejects all beliefs derived from social conditioning. not only religious beliefs.  Also, the Assassins in the game are portrayed as atheists.

A can also stand for Athena.  It may seems strange to mention a pagan goddess alongside atheism, but the gods and goddesses are very useful tools as symbolic representations.  Athena, as mentioned earlier as Minerva, is in many ways a vivid characterisation of the Assassins, their beliefs, values, and virtues as the goddess of wisdom, battle tactics, invention, commerce, truth, reason, and freedom. As the patron of heroes, particularly Odysseus, she encouraged the virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honour.

Also of note in this regard is that in the game the Templar leaders carry the title Master, while among the Assassins the preferred title is Mentor.  This fits with the opposing ideologies.  The Master commands while the Mentor guides.  The word mentor originates from Homer’s Odyssey as the proper name of an old man who lived in Odysseus’ town.  During the story both Odysseus and his son are counselled by him, but it is later discovered that this was actually Athena appearing in his form.  The root of the word mentor, men, is the same from which we get the word mental referring to the mind.  It is also the root for the proper name Minerva, aka Athena.  So whether intentional by the games authors or not, we have another connection between the Assassins and Athena.

download_ca_redThe letter A can also stand for Anarchy.  The political view of the Assassins is that power must be redistributed to each individual rather than concentrated in a central authority.  If we see political opposition on a scale between individualists on one side and collectivists on the other, then we have a clearer picture of the Assassins on the individualist side along  with the libertarians and anarchists and the Templars on the authoritarian collectivist end with the progressives, socialists and communists.  Power to the people does not mean power to a central authority claiming to act on behalf of the people. it means challenging the central authority as it presently exists and the potential creation of new authorities.

I have chosen to mark as the beginning of the Romantic Era as 1776 for three reasons.  That is the year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, James Watt put the first commercial steam engine into operation, and the Declaration of Independence was issued.  Romanticism is about individualism.  The Wealth of Nations brought capitalism that empowered the individual economically, the steam engine heralded the Industrial Revolution created individual opportunity, and the Declaration of Independence brought Classical Liberalism, at the time was called radical republicanism, which brought individual freedom.  Another interesting relationship was that Adam Smith, James Watt, and many of America’s founding fathers were all Freemasons.

The symbol the the fraternal brotherhood known as the Freemasons, or Masons, is a compass and square.  Others have noticed the similarity between this and the symbol for the Assassins, with the compass forming the “A” shape and the square being the portion beneath it.  The “G” is said to stand for God, though not in a purely Judeo-Christian sense, but rather a supreme being as the “great architect of the universe”.  Masons use architectural and stonemason metaphors the illustrate their key principles of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

The similarity between the Mason and Assassin symbols is uncanny and yet may be purely coincidental.  Many theorists put forward the notion that the Mason evolved directly from the historic Knights Templar, however in the game universe, the Assassins are the oppositions to the Templars.  I am by no means an expert on Masonic history, but from my understanding and research I would assert that Masons were generally on the side of liberty and were often persecuted by authoritarian regimes, such as the Italian fascists, the Nazis, and the Soviets.  I suspect that given further study many Masonic ideas may be present in the representation of the Assassins in the game.

Assassin’s Creed is a fantasy.  None of it is real.  There are no ancient ones, divine or otherwise; there is no Assassin Brotherhood, at least not since the Hashashin died out after the Crusades; and there is no Knights Templar, although that is often debated on the internet.  So for all intents and purposes the symbol of the Assassins is equally meaningless, and anyone is free to ascribe any meaning to it, be it trivial or profound.

What is real is that there are people in the world who seek power which they usually justify in the name of righteousness.  Power is the means by which a person works their will in the world.  Some people use their power to exert their will over others and others readily accept this authority.  History shows us that human beings have an incredible capacity for self-subjugation to a point where it is perceived as a social norm and anyone who challenges the authority is seen as being weird or fringe.  Since the authority cloaks itself in morality, these outcasts are usually portrayed as evil or deranged.

This is the underlying truth behind Assassin’s Creed.  It envisions a secret group of people, a gang if you will, who rally behind a symbol and bind themselves together in shared beliefs, values, and virtues to challenge the authority –  “to work in the dark to serve the light”.  We talk about fighting for the right, but we really do not mean it.  We fight metaphorically through political activism or vicariously by playing games like Assassin’s Creed, but the authority does not fear metaphoric or vicarious battle.  Fighting means violence if necessary and the Assassins represent a group that sees the oppression that most are blind to and they are willing to do what must be done no matter how terrible.

At the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, the Earth is threatened by a return of the same massive solar flare that wiped-out “the Ones Who Came Before”.  The main character, Desmond Miles, must make a choice.  By activating an ancient device he can save humanity but also free Juno’s consciousness and she will in turn enslave humanity. Athena/Minerva councils him not to activate the device.  Remnants of humanity will survive and they will be free.  Desmond’s choice is one we must all make.  Do we value security and safety under the authority or do we choose freedom even if it means the world burns?  For me, the symbol of the Assassins marks those who choose freedom, no matter the cost and that is something very real.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Response to a Reader of my Assassin’s Creed Article

I recently received a comment on by far my most popular article on the underlying questions behind the video game Assassin’s Creed, focusing primarily on Assassin’s Creed 2.2, Brotherhood.  You can find it here. My response became quite lengthy and would not fit into the comment section, so I have opted to post my reply here.

Anonymous wrote:

Great post, I've been looking for a while for something like this. Main points of the game condensed in one place. I came to most of the conclusions myself, but had no chance in putting them together as eloquently as you have.

There are still some things that bother me though. The Templars' intentions were in fact just as noble as those of assassins. They wanted the world to prosper in peace. The "wrong" part is, they (just as Machiavelli) believed people are stupid, ignorant, immoral, pleasure-seeking and selfish lot who wont prosper on their own. Thus, someone needs to steer them. Well who better then themselves? They thought themselves better than others and that gave them the right for power. It is obvious to me that the belief someone's life is worth more than another's is false, but you cannot deny some are better than others (again, I don't believe their lives are therefore worth more/less). I don't mean that as a predisposition like race, sex... I mean that some people make more of themselves, they see their own potential and reach for it and eventually get closer to the truth. I don't want to be mean but here's an example: You have a fat greasy-looking guy, slouching in his seat at the computer, staring mindlessly at the screen, eating stale pizza from 2 days ago. .. you get the picture. And then you have someone who is dedicated to a cause, constantly improving himself, training, learning, growing.

How is Templars control of people any worse than Altair killing for peace (see the contradiction)? Ezio's standpoint is a bit better since he's killing for truth or better he's killing the Templars to remove an illusion they've cast. The assassins want people to learn the truth for themselves and then be able to prosper on their own, without someone controlling them (or at least that's how i get it). That here is an ideal. I'd say I'm very idealistic myself, but I can see why people say "Idealism" with a certain you-mean-unrealistic kind of tone. I don't think the fact people would ever learn or even want to learn the truth is an objective truth as you call it. It's Ezio's belief. So he's acting on his belief in the humanity (just as Templars are acting in their belief of their own supremacy). Both are subjective truths.

So I don't see how his small evil (killing) is any smaller than Templar's (deceiving). And I can't even come to terms whether a small evil for greater good is justified. I mean what is ethics? Do we judge our actions according to the actions themselves or to their consequences? Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world. Well an idealistic world is made of moral people doing moral (directly, not in consequences) things. There would be no need for small evils. I prefer the idea that the only real good is the absolute good. Doing no small evil for whatever purpose. If everyone did the same, ... Instead of fighting the wrong, do right. Be the example.

One more thought on morality: Is it something universal, absolute, or are we taught what is wrong/right? I would very much like to believe it is universal as the other option would very much undermine my beliefs of what is true at all, but I just can't find a proof. Little help?
I saw some posts earlier about how Hitler and Stalin and whoever they've brought up were bad. That kinda bothers me. Most people are just taught they were evil men and than go in the public and start saying all this things you heard in school or god knows where and say how they'd kill them without hesitation if they could go back. What do you really know of this men? What if all you know of them is a "Templar" fabrication to instil fear or serve any other selfish purpose? I'm going for Lenin here, the first guy to actually try out communism in practice. He was an idealist, just as Ezio was. His intentions were great, just as those of Templars or assassins. But then in US, communism is shown as the biggest evil that humanity has ever seen. "Don't think too much about what it is, just know it's really bad for you, look, they are poor and their leaders have a ton of money, damn, we should probably start a war right? I mean they speak of global communism; they want to make us poor too? Yeah, lets build a nuke, what do you think?" They put fear into people to make them see their own government a..... ok I’m loosing track here. You get the idea. Think for yourselves, don’t just be told something and take it as truth. It could just as well be someone else’s subjective or it would serve his purposes to make it yours. Buddha said not to believe a single word someone tells you until you've came to that same conclusion. I just cant stand good old American republicans saying "Obama's a Communist" and when asked what communism is they mock you for not knowing. !!! We did this in 3rd grade!

I know I'm long, one last thing, i thought of an allegory for the main theme of the game. Templars and assassins can be compared to parents and the people are their children. The Templars will tell their children what to do, they won't tell them why and explain. And those kids would live just fine (until some day for whatever reason there would no longer be control). Assassins would let their kids decide on their own, make their own mistakes but also expect them to take responsibility for those actions. These children would learn not to obey, but to decide.

Thanks again for your post and reply. I really liked how well you express yourself. You could probably write this comment in about half the length I did.

Now... Homework

To summarize, I think these are the basic points/questions:

How valuable is a person and are some people more valuable than others?

What is the difference between the political positions represented by the Templars and the Assassins? And how do we judge their tactics?

Do we judge our actions according to the actions themselves or to their consequences?

Is there a knowable universal morality?

Were Hitler and Stalin truly evil? What about Communism?

Are the Templars and Assassins just different kinds of parenting?

Whenever I get lost I just break things down to their basics and look to Natural Law for answers. Francis Bacon said, “Nature to be commanded must first be obeyed”. The dark side of idealism is when this fact is ignored and people try to force nature to fit their presupposed notions. This is part of the concept “Nothing is true”. What is true is Nature, Reality, or whatever you want to call it. To put it another way, there is no truth save that which is true.

Thanks to modern technology and a society built on it, Nature is not so great a concern. We exist in a state of luxury. We take this condition for granted and form idealistic notions completely divorced from reality and build moral codes with no concern for Nature. In fact, we find Nature itself morally abhorrent because it goes against the morality that we have been socially conditioned to accept.

This brings me to the first point. How valuable is a person and are some people more valuable than others? Humans possess an individual consciousness, but we are not equipped to survive on our own. We are small group animals. We form families, gangs, tribes, and clans. These are “us”. Those who are not us are “them”. On an individual level, we value our own lives, then our family, and then our tribe.

You can take the most empathetic and compassionate person and ask them to choose between the lives of a thousand African children they do not know and their own child, and I assure you that they would rather see the deaths of these children then their own, even if their offspring is “a fat greasy-looking guy, slouching in his seat at the computer, staring mindlessly at the screen, eating stale pizza”. We are programmed by Nature to value us over them.

Beyond family, we judge people in a community according to their utilitarian value. Let’s say you were picking your team of who to be trapped with on a desert island. Do you pick Billy Joe Bob, redneck extraordinaire with a gun rack in his pick-up truck for when he goes off to kill Bambi or do you choose Noam Chomsky, the smartest man in academia? Sorry Noam, but Billy Joe wins. We need food. For Noam to have any value to the community, he would need to offer something other than linguistics and political opinion.

So according to the grim reality of Nature, we value the lives of us over them, and amongst us it is the people who either create value or carry the power of force who achieve status. It is all well and good to be non-violent when the greater force of law protects the weak, but in the state of Nature the world belongs to the bullies. Might does not make right, but it does win the day. So it is important for us to be stronger than them.

This brings us to the next point. We may say that violence is wrong or that killing is wrong, but violence is the de-facto final resolution to conflict. People who extol Gandhi have no idea of the social context. The British had been in India for centuries and had developed sympathy for the people of India. So the non-violent tactics worked. However, what if Gandhi was against a different culture of the time, like the Nazis for example? He would be dead.

Here’s an interesting point. The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not kill”. Well, it does, but the translation is off. The actual commandment is, “Thou shalt not murder”. Killing is when you kill “them” and murder is when you kill “us”.

Studies have shown that the old 80/20 per cent rules apply in a crisis situation. Ten per cent will go one way, ten per cent will go the other, and eighty per cent follow one or the other. We almost see this in the American War for Independence. A third of the population supported the patriots, a third supported the Crown, and a third did not care.

In Assassin’s Creed, we have two gangs of opposing views. The Assassins are us and the Templars are them. The people caught in the middle are the innocents not to be harmed, but the Templars have no compunction against killing innocents if they get in the way. So in that regard the tactics differ. The Assassins are justified in killing them because they are not us.

Again, to the modern mind this does not seem right. We are taught not to see us and them. In the West we are encouraged to see them as part of this great human family with us – in the same global village. The enemies of Western Civilization do not share that sentiment and theirs is a view more aligned with Nature.

Now to the third point, “Do we judge our actions according to the actions themselves or to their consequences?” In the philosophical branch of Ethics this is a key debate. I subscribe to the latter, which is called Consequentialism. Ethics is concerned with “right action”. An action is judged as “good” if the long-term results are positive and “bad” is the outcome is destructive. Aristotelian ethics holds that to be good is to be consistent with Nature.  Wisdom requires that we look at the world that his and from that arrive at the most positive course of action.

So let’s say someone does a bad thing, but thinks he is doing something good. Then he is a fool, and Aristotle would equate foolishness with evil. Unfortunately, when it comes to questions of ethics we have this Disney view of villains as wringing their hands gleefully at their glorious evil. It does not work that way in real life. As the actor Willem DeFoe noted, all villains think that they are the hero. They think they are in the right. They think they are moral and justified.

I’m going to skip ahead to a related question. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler all thought that they were morally right. Stalin to a lesser degree, but Lenin thought he was freeing the serfs and Hitler was acting for the good of the German people. Germany was pretty sick after World War I, and many believed that National Socialism was the cure. It was us vs. them taken to what many saw as its logical extreme.

One of the consequences of World War II was a rejection in the West of the moral validity of us vs. them, however because it is a natural state the result was hypocrisy. We saw the creation of new parameters that defined a new us and a new them and all the while claiming to be above such things.

Divisions in the West are increasingly along socio-political lines. It is as if without a them we turn our attentions on attacking us. So in America when once there was a universally recognised them, the evil Communists, we now find the country spitting into camps broadly described as collectivist and individualist, or to put it metaphorically, the Templars and Assassins. Since both sides perceive themselves to be good, we might describe this not as good vs. evil but as good vs. good. So which is truly good?

I believe that there is such a thing as a universal morality. Ethics concerns itself with right action. For the Aristotelian, the gage of right action is based on the premise that acting in accordance with Natural Law leads to flourishing, and that is good.

But we have discovered a problem. There is a consequence to over-flourishing. We have reached a point in human development where we have gone beyond Natural Law. If you have seen the film Idiocracy, it concerns itself with the concept called dysgenics. The theory is that without struggle against nature and the competition against other groups of humans, it is not the best suited who are breeding, but rather the least suited, those who would die-off if they had to play by Nature’s rules.

I am an American, but I live in Britain. Here in Scotland roughly a third of the population belongs to the so-called underclass. They are the alleged poor. They are largely illiterate, the beneficiaries of most government programs, and suffer from an obesity epidemic. You can tell their neighbourhoods by the plethora of gambling houses, pubs, pound stores, tanning salons, and chip shops. Birth rates are down in Britain, as they are throughout the Western world, except among this class thanks to government incentives for breeding. A single mother gets more money per child. Does that sound like poverty to you, at least in the Dickensian sense? And yet politicians demand more aid to help these supposed poor, but in truth they are playing off public sympathy to line their own pocket and increase their power-base.

These are the results of social democracy. Unlike the communism of the Soviet Union or the socialism of Hitler where government took a firm hand in social control, this soft touch form of socialism attempts to combine both the collectivist and individualist social approaches. In other words, people want freedom without responsibility, but responsibility to who or what? A responsibly to Nature.

The first rule of Nature is “produce of die”. Every creature engages in production in order to feed itself, be it grazing, hunting, or working 9-5 to buy things from the supermarket. Social democracy promises food without production thus violating this rule of Nature. Someone else will produce for you and this production will be transferred to you via the state and its taxes. This is seen as moral. We do not want people to suffer and go hungry, but the result is what we see in Scotland. So that which may appear good in the short term is negative for “us” in the long-term and vice versa.

So here we have your parenting analogy. Collectivism is maternal. People need to be taken care of and not suffer the consequences of their actions. So the State will provide and care for you from cradle to grave. An argument can be made that American socialism began in the South in the late Nineteenth Century. Former slave masters had no problem with the idea of caring for their slaves from cradle to grave, so why shouldn’t the government do that too. In collectivism, be it communism, socialism, or the way of the Templars, people are to be taken care of in exchange for their production and the wise masters will manage this plantation.

Individualism is paternal. As daddy used to say, “You gotta learn to stand on your own two feet, son”. You have to be strong to produce and take care of yourself and your family. You have to work hard and find your own way. Women and children get taken care of, but you’re a man and you have to do what must be done no matter how hard it gets, and this takes courage.

This connects to the earlier point concerning us and them. Western Civilization was founded by what today we would call gangs, and I have actually been working on an article on this subject. Rome was founded by a gang, as was England, and the British Empire was begun by pirates. A gang is a group of men who take control of an area, and then they bring in women to perpetuate the gang and from this seed a clan, then a tribe, then a nation, and then maybe an empire grows.

Men form gangs and gangs are a threat to the state, therefore men are a threat to the state. So we see men increasingly marginalised in society. Sure, there are men ruling at the top, but more men are subjugated then are ruling. The man’s primary gang, his family, is no longer his. The family now belongs to woman and from an evolutionary stand point; women are accustomed to being taken care of, so the state becomes the new father. The Nanny-State is a largely female-oriented society where the role historically played by a man is now played by the state as the key provider and disciplinarian.

So in the Assassin’s Creed metaphor, the Templars have succeeded in eliminated the male-role as a threat to their power so that they can be the father, caring and providing for a feminised society. The Assassins challenge this through their gang and seek to create a society where the paternal power is removed from the state and returned to the men themselves.

I think I hit all your points. To summarise, Ethics concerns itself with right action, and people have different ideas as to what constitutes right action. The Templars offer order and security in exchange for your obedience to what they “know” is right for you. The Assassins offer chaos and struggle with every person, every us and every them, making their own choices and dealing with the consequences for good or ill of their actions. Ultimately, it is the choice between security and freedom.  It is not always nice, or soft, or comfortable, but it is right because it is aligned with Nature.

I believe that the Assassin’s Creed series is popular for many as just a cool video game franchise, but there is a core of people who recognise in the game the real world struggle between these two versions of “good”. They find in the game their vicarious battle for freedom in a world controlled by Templars. Case in point, look at the recent presidential election. Obama has continued George Bush’s policies, and both Obama and Romney were funded by Goldman Sachs, so it is unlikely that a Romney presidency would have differed from Obama’s. So to put this in the language of Assassin’s Creed, what do you do in an election when both candidates are Templars? I’m sorry to say that I actually forgot about the election because I was busy playing Assassin’s Creed 3, pretending to fight for liberty. Probably because the only hope I see would require a level of real world violence that I have been socially conditioned not to possess.