So, here we all are, somewhere on earth, each of us is unique; a product of our evolutionary, cultural, and personal histories. I am convinced that the vast majority of us are trying to do their best regardless of country, party, religion, race, or background. And, before launching into a discussion of anything else, it is worth at least a few moments of reflection on the fact that we have changed our world tremendously even in the space of my personal lifetime. I was born in 1945, the year the atomic bomb first devastated human lives. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seventy two more years have passed and we have not had an atomic war. Of course, there is no guarantee that we won’t ever have one but we have survived decades when we might have wreaked this kind of heartless havoc on each other. And, we haven’t.
Another thing that impresses me is that we regularly communicate and cooperate with people across the world. Countries share ideas, products, services, and people. True enough, war persists. Yet, generally, people today enjoy the lowest death rate by violence at any time in our history. (Of course, if you or a loved one is a casualty, there is little comfort in knowing that “in general” people aren’t killed as much by violence as they used to be). But the general decrease is fairly remarkable when you consider a few vital accompanying changes. First, we have far deadlier weapons than ever before. Don’t get me wrong, if you smash someone’s skull with a large rock they are every bit as “dead” as if you drop a bomb on them or poison them. But, today we can kill a great many people at a very great distance. And whereas the strongest and healthiest and best-trained knights may have had a much better chance of survival than weaker or less able cousins, today it does not matter how well-trained you are or how much you can bench press. You will not survive in close proximity to an all-out attack whether by atomic weapons, chemical weapons, or biological ones. Second, we have far more people on earth than we ever have before. More people have been born since I was born than were born from the beginning of history until my birth. We evolved to be hunter-gatherers. We lived in small tribes. Now, we have 7 billion people on this planet.
Imagine that there is only one large pie and four people all must satiate their appetites from that one pie. They might discuss things a bit. Maybe one person would claim to be famished while another does not really care that much for pie but would like to taste it. I would not foresee much trouble with four people. Would you?
Now, imagine that instead of four people, you had four hundred people and they only had one pie to stem their hunger. Wouldn’t you expect a much louder level of argument if not actual fighting to break out? Now, imagine that instead of four hundred people, there were 40,000 people and the only thing to eat was that one pie? Of course, there is a good chance for violence. However, it might also be possible that they would realize one pie split 40,000 ways is not much improvement over nothing. Why fight? It might be better to do a lottery and have the winner lay claim to the whole pie. If they liked, they could share with their friends and family. This may not be great, but it is probably still better than having everyone fight for the pie. Or, people might decide that they will have a contest based on what they value most. If they value physical strength more than any other human attribute, they might have a shot put contest or a wrestling match. The winner of the contest would get the whole pie and would be free to wolf it down themselves or share as they see fit.
Suppose that everyone agreed to a wrestling contest and as the semi-finalists entered the ring, many were shocked at the discrepancy between their apparent physical abilities. Odysseus, let’s call him, sported legs like tree trunks, arms thick with banded muscles. Despite his giant proportions, he walked like a lion displaying a quick, easy grace. By contrast, Cassius, say, appears a bit on the thin side. His gait impresses the crowd as someone who might stumble or fall frequently. How can they both be one match away from champion?
Here’s how. Cassius isn’t using his strength at all. He’s using poison. As in ancient Greece, contestants wear gloves and Cassius, for each of his previous matches, has put a nearly undetectable ointment on the outside of his gloves. He touches his opponent, and they begin to get weary; they nearly fall asleep. But before they are so clearly drugged that foul play would be obvious, Cassius headlocks his disabled and wobbly opponent. The crowd mainly attributes his success to having, despite appearances, a terrifically effective headlock. Why do they do this? They are prone to give Cassius the benefit of the doubt. They do not assume or presume that when someone is successful despite a rather obvious lack of relevant talent, that every one of his previous matches was due to nastiness and breaking the rules.
Now at last, it has become clear. Cassius has succeeded only by some foul means even though the precise nature of that means is not yet clear. The crowd grows restless. Cassius was supposed to embody what the crowd agreed was the most important, best defining characteristic of their hero: physical strength. Instead, Cassius does embody a trait — treachery — a willingness to say one thing and do another; a willingness to break any and all rules in order to win the entire pie for himself to then further dole out as he wishes.
It would be wrong to say that treachery is never a good trait and it would be equally incorrect to say that immense physical strength is always a good thing. For example, what if you appear to agree to be a spy for space aliens but meanwhile tipped off the humans and thus saved humanity from certain annihilation? It seems to me that an ability to be that “treacherous” would be good. On the other side, imagine two people get extremely frustrated trying to level a door. The weaker one pounds the side of his fist on the door twice to vent their frustration then goes back to leveling the door. The stronger one, however, whams the door with his fist hard enough to break the door and embed his hand into the splintered wood. He becomes trapped there and bleeds out through his shredded brachial artery.
It needs to be noted that everyone agreed that the they wanted their hero to be the one with the most physical strength, not the one most willing and able to be treacherous. Odysseus played the agreed upon game and stood poised to win. Cassius on the other hand, did not argue with the crowd and try to convince them that treachery trumped strength and therefore they should have a treachery contest. No. Cassius pretended to agree to play the game of “who is stronger than whom” but what he really played was the treachery game all along. In a way, this is not all that surprising because that is the game he is best at. Cassius isn’t so deluded as to think that he is better at actual wrestling than Odysseus.
The thing that I find surprising about this scenario is that people didn’t catch on much sooner that Cassius was not winning his matches through ability but through treachery. As I said, I believe one reason for this is simply that most people are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. Second, while many might have admired Odysseus, others may have been secretly resentful. They realized that they could never be as agile, as strong, as skilled as Odysseus. On the other hand, when they looked at Cassius, they might think, “Hey. Here’s a regular guy like me. If he can win the pie, it’ll be almost as good as if I get the pie! Anyway, he promised to distribute ten of these pies to everyone if he wins, so maybe, just maybe, I won’t think about other possible ways he could have ousted bigger, stronger, faster opponents.” Of course, once more and more people come to recognize the fundamental treachery of Cassius, the ones who knew the longest become more and more vested not to admit that they knew all along. They keep on cheering for Cassius: “Look at those biceps! No wonder he beat all those others! Killer headlock! Go Cassius!” Others in the crowd look at the biceps of Cassius and what they see is pretty damned ordinary arms; if anything, a bit on the puny side. There is nothing to their eyes, that trumpets: “Look out! Killer headlock!”
So, here we find a divided crowd. Those people who believe ability is most important believe basically this: “This is insane. Has the rest of the crowd gone blind? How can they speak of the ability of Cassius as being the cause of his success. It’s poison and we will prove it. And people guilty of treachery will be punished.”
The Cassiusists, on the other hand, believe: “…that treachery wins the day and, in fact, that it is a kind of wily intelligence. The human race didn’t get where it is because of strength. We aren’t anywhere near the strongest. But we may well be the wiliest. We set traps for other animals. We learn their habits and hunt them down. We bait hooks for fish. We domesticate other animals for our purpose. All of it hinges on a kind of treachery. As they say, hunting is the only sporting event where only one side knows it’s playing. Anyway, there’s always been treachery in politics, hasn’t there? It’s smart to win any way you can.”
Yes, I agree it is smart to win any way you can. Under the following two conditions:
- What counts as “you” winning is only what happens to the protoplasm inside your skin. This attitude is off by orders of magnitude. As discussed in an earlier blog post, most of you is outside the boundaries of your own skin. Most of what is in the interest of Cassius is not within the boundaries of his own skin but in everyone else in the entire crowd and therefore how his actions impact them, is on the whole, hugely more important than the impact on himself, even from the standpoint of self-interest.
- One note does not make a symphony. The pie splitting contests are not a one-time deal. People play over and over and over again. If you use treachery, you encourage treachery in others. Yes, if everyone else is trusting, you will gain a lot in the very short term. But in the long term, you will be punished right back. And your descendants will live in world that much more ruled by treachery than ability. It’s actually a long-term lose for everyone, including those who are “best” at treachery and that is true regardless of whether you are “found out.”
Meanwhile, of course, what is even more important is what is not happening to the extent it could while people argue about how the pie should be split and who should get to decide. Diseases are not being cured to the extent and rapidity to which they could. People are not getting the education to the extent they could. Better international cooperation and mutual respect is not being accomplished. Better roads are not being built. Crumbling bridges are not being repaired. Scientific discoveries are not expanding our knowledge of the universe as quickly as they could. Affordable healthcare and wellness are not improving in the country.
What this all amounts to is that we are not creating more pies. We are too busy fighting about who should be awarded the pie we have. This is the other reason why treachery is not a reasonable value for a society to hold dear, let alone primary. Treachery leads to treachery. And, although it is true that those in power can do a lot of dictating, no matter how heavy-handed a reign of terror becomes, it is always subject to overthrow and revolution. And, during such a struggle, we are essentially fighting over who gets how much of the pie and — oh, by the way — killing each other in the process. We are not during tyranny or revolution making all that many pies. That’s why, to me, it is antithetical to the whole idea of any society whatsoever; any form of cooperation; to reward treachery.
There is room for legitimate debate about which qualities are most important for someone who gets to decide who gets how much pie. If that same person also gets to decide how much energy we put into making which additional pies, this adds another set of important qualifications. If splitting pies is the hero’s only job, being fair-minded, open-minded, generous, would seem to be good qualities. If the hero also had a large role in determining how many and what kinds of new pies to create, then, being vastly knowledgeable and intelligent would be vital; being able to communicate across disciplines and interests in order to make difficult tradeoffs would be important. In the best case scenario, this person would take in good ideas from all angles and help produce even better ones on output.
The only scenario that makes sense for me to have a treacherous leader would be to imagine that we live in a completely treacherous world internationally and in that sense, there is a “fixed pie” model of the world economy. What France gains, I necessarily lose and vice versa. This is, by the way, an insanely incorrect model of the world. It is far more cooperative than competitive. Of course, this is not to say that countries do not sometimes compete for Olympic venues or airline contracts. But this is overwhelmingly accomplished without treachery by staying within agreed upon rules of the game. People don’t always agree with every specific rule; they may try to change them, but for now, everyone’s agreed to play by them.
Yes, under the incorrect scenario of a treacherous world, having a treacherous leader would make some sense, but only provided treacherousness was “maxed out” because otherwise it is still in someone’s best interest not to be treacherous. Of course, the other critical proviso is that we would have to completely trust that the person would be treacherous to other countries but honest and above-board with its own crowd or citizens. A Medieval king or queen may have been able to pull this off. I submit it’s impossible today except for a few dictatorships where news from the outside world is heavily censored. When people have access to the internet and social media, for example, you cannot say one thing to one nation or group or crowd and a completely different thing to a different crowd or nation or reporter. So, it seems completely paradoxical to have a leader who is maximally “treacherous” to be of any long-term value. You couldn’t trust him on a long-term basis and neither could any other nation. Once trust is completely gone, it takes a long time to win it back. As a strategy, treachery seems a really out-dated one. If you really love treachery, I can see why you would want to cut back on education, quash any dissenting views and so on. Without that, you couldn’t get it to work against your own citizens more than once or twice. But if you prevent people from ever finding out, it will take longer. It won’t take forever. But it will take awhile. And meanwhile, treachery metastasizes throughout the land. I like to think the immune system of the crowd is sufficiently strong to treat the tumor successfully or isolating it from the rest of the body. These are the best ways.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).