How Game of Thrones Reflects History Like Two Opposing Mirrors

by James Wallace Harris, 6/15/22

My friends Linda, Connell, and I are rewatching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and this time around I can’t help but compare it to current politics and the books on ancient history I’m reading. When I saw the series years ago I only thought of it as an epic fantasy. This time I feel George R. R. Martin distilled millennia of human history into one fictional story.

I’ve lost count of the times a real game of thrones has played out in my study of history. By now I’ve read dozens and dozens of accounts of power plays for a throne. One example from ancient Egypt deals with an assassination attempt on Rameses III from The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Baurer:

THE FAULT LINE running through Egypt, temporarily plastered over by victory reliefs and building projects, was still liable to crack open at any point. Rameses III held the throne by right of his father’s coup, and he was not immune to power plays.

Towards the end of his reign, one of his lesser wives hatched a plot to assassinate the king by mob violence. Scribes who recorded the affair during the reign of Rameses’s successor say that she began a campaign to “stir up the people and incite enmity, in order to make rebellion against their lord.”10 Apparently she hoped that the mob would not only remove Rameses III, but also his appointed successor—his son by another wife—so that her own son would become king.

A harem plot to kill the pharaoh was hardly unknown, but this one was remarkable for the number of people involved. The court recorder lists, among others, the two royal standard-bearers, the butler, and the chief scribe. The overseer of the herds was accused of making wax figures of the king, apparently for use in an Egyptian form of voodoo;11 the chief steward was convicted of spreading dissension. The conspiracy apparently stretched all the way down into Nubia: “Benemwese, formerly captain of archers in Nubia…was brought in because of the letter which his sister, who was in the harem, had written to him, saying, ‘Incite the people to hostility!’”12

The records of the conspiratorial accusations end, in monotonous regularity, with either “He took his own life” or “The punishments of death were executed upon him.” The exceptions were three conspirators who merely had their noses and ears cut off, and a single acquittal: a standard-bearer named Hori, who undoubtedly lived the rest of his years in disbelief that he alone had survived the purge.13

By the time the trials dragged to a close, the intended victim was offstage. Rameses III himself had died of old age.

That trial reminds me of the current Jan 6th hearings. I wonder how people will study January 6th in future history books?

Donald Trump’s campaigns to stay in political power remind me of Game of Thrones too. Trump wants the 2024 presidency like the Game of Throne characters wants the Iron Throne. I imagine Trump pictures himself as Tywin Lannister, rich and powerful, but he’s actually more like Robert Baratheon, a leader in name only who shirks his kingly duties to wench and hunt. All of Trump’s would-be advisors remind me of the treacherous advisors in King’s Landing. People like Steve Bannon obviously want to be a puppetmaster to the powerful in the same way Littlefinger and Varys pulled the strings on those who would rule Westeros.

This year I’m on my fourth book about ancient history and there is one obvious lesson that stands out above all others: Beware of rulers. There are always people, usually men, who believe they should rule, and they think nothing of getting thousands or even millions of innocent people killed to fulfill their ambitions.

The alpha humans always want more. The betas connive to be alphas. And the rest of humanity, the omegas, are the pawns in the game of thrones. To the ruthless, the 99.99% of humanity are the Star Trek red shirts in their personal fantasies. We see that with Putin in Ukraine right now. I’ve started another book, Bloodlands by Timothy Synder, that focuses on Hitler and Stalin’s roles in killing 14 million people from 1933 to 1945. Why do we let our rulers have so much power?

Until humanity can rule itself without ambitious psychopaths we’re going to repeat the same loop forever. In the history books, there have only been a couple of minor incidents where the ordinary citizens protested their role as cannon fodder. Most of history is about one ruler after another waging war. When will this infinitely repeated story horrify us enough to break free of the cycle? Since Game of Thrones was such a huge hit, maybe we love things just the way they are?

Eight seasons of Game of Thrones is about endless warring and the remembrances of wars. The story ends and we think there will be peace, but history tells us that won’t be true. Why don’t we get other stories in history and literature? Why not the stories of those people who built the beautiful cities we see in Westeros and Essos? Why is it always conflict and destruction?

Why do we mainly remember the monsters of history and literature? None of the major characters in Game of Thrones are good people. Is this why Trump and Putin are so well-loved in their respective countries? Are the rest of us just fans, taking sides while watching the game play out? Is that our only role, to pick a team to follow? Go Starks! Go Lannisters! Go Trump! Go Putin!

Below is one of my favorite and telling passages in The History of the Ancient World. In chapter 52, history intersects with the Old Testament and 19th-century literature. It’s not that I endorse what’s being reported, but I think it reveals something deeply psychological in the human race, especially when you compare these events of almost three thousand years ago to today. This passage reminds me of the destruction of cities in Ukraine and King’s Landing in season eight.

JWH

Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.

JWH

How Do You Label Your Existence?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/3/22

Now that I’ve been retired for eight years, I realize I can no longer call myself a programmer, which is the way I identified myself during my middle years. Because Susan and I never had children, I’ve never been a parent, and thus can’t be a grandparent in my waning years, which is a label some of my retired friends proudly embrace.

My new identity is a retired person, but that’s not much of an identity and I’m not sure I like using that label, but I do. I spend most of my time reading and writing about science fiction short stories, which gives me a little bit of a purpose. I can’t call myself a scholar, but I do study that subject in depth. It’s just a tiny subject that’s not very relevant but does give my existence a purpose. I’m not sure I can justify my existence by calling myself a science fiction fan.

I guess I could call myself a blogger but don’t know how satisfying a label it would be to use. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist or philosopher but I’ve never come close to actually being either.

I look around and see people defining their existence in various smaller ways. One prominent label that is often in the news is Republican. Some of these people treat being a Republican almost like a religious identification and evidently find great identity with it. They even take great satisfaction in calling themselves a Republican or a Conservative. I’m a liberal but don’t get off on calling myself one. I think that’s one of the big differences between the two parties. Conservatives are a lot more organized, and they seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of being part of their group. I think being young and liberal is more of an identity thing. It was for me.

I observe people finding meaning in their existence in all kinds of ways. I know many people who are ardent travelers. They use the term traveler to define themselves. Many of them act like their purpose on Earth is to travel. They find self-worth by recalling the places they’ve been. I’ve noticed there are a lot of travelers with YouTube channels. I wonder if they feel like prophets of traveling?

I’m on the fringe of many subcultures. Take audiophiles for example. They find meaning in their never-ending question to achieve higher fidelity playback, I’m too cheap to go all the way with that group. I’m not a sports fan, but they are quite common around here, and they seem to find great happiness in identifying with their teams. There seems to be an overlap between sports fans, Christians, and Republicans, in that they all love their group identity and get immense satisfaction when their group wins or converts folks to the team.

I relate to many of my friends through the kinds of entertainment we share. Much of the conversations I have with my friends, deal with discussing shows and movies on television. I’m also a bookworm and find kinship with other bookworms. I’m not a foodie, but I know a lot of people who find dining out an important aspect of existence.

I believe people get more existential meaning from their pursuits when they have a strong label for themselves. The average person might love dining out, but someone who calls themselves a foodie obviously gets more meaning from it than those of us who just enjoy chowing down. And if people call themselves a gourmet, they feel even more important about themselves, like they were philosophers of the tablecloth.

That’s my trouble. I no longer have any good labels to define myself. I guess the best is Bookworm. It’s the one I’ve embraced since childhood. I’ve never been one for nice cars or clothes. I spend my money on books. I don’t travel because I prefer to read.

However, I have to wonder, when I lay dying in my La-Z-Boy, will I look back and feel my existence was well spent with all those books?

JWH

What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

Schismogenesis, Cultural Appropriation, Conformity, and Identity

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/22

I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow but I can’t review it as a whole because it features hundreds of interesting ideas and I have no way to assess them all in a small essay. So, I’m going to review some of its ideas in a series of blog posts. Each one will deal with a unique concept that I think is useful.

Overall, the book speculates about societies in prehistory and in three places uses the word “schismogenetic” referring to the term schismogenesis, a word coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. This is not a common word, but one that I had to look up, and it’s used in various ways in the social sciences that isn’t exactly how Graeber and Wengrow use it.

Graeber and Wengrow use the concept of schismogenetic to identify a human trait that is very worth recognizing — the urge to belong to a group by defining distinctive wanted traits. This explains children and adolescents who like to conform, to subcultures and hobbyists who love sharing a common interest, to ethnic, cultural, and nationalistic groups who fight cultural appropriation to preserve their unique identity, to political groups who want to maintain unity, and so on.

Schismogenesis can be seen as the cause of xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the inverse of xenophobia. Xenophobia rejects others by traits we don’t like or want, and the schismogenetic urge defines our group identity by specific traits we embrace. This is just me speculating and I’m no expert. I want to embrace this concept because I feel it’s very useful. I see examples of it everywhere. If the term became popular it might help us understand ourselves.

Take conservatives and Republicans. It seems in recent decades they are defining themselves more and more exactly. They have generated a schism by clearly defining who they want to be issue by issue. Take mask-wearing. They’re against it. They see mask wearers as a liberal trait. Ditto for vaccinations. If liberals and Democrats had been against masks and vaccinations, the people on the right would have been for them. If the left is for Critical Race Theory, then the right is against it. If the left believes in climate change, then they don’t. And the details don’t matter to most people.

I use this political example not to be political, but I think it’s obvious that the schismogenetic urge is stronger in conservatives. They really enjoy defining themselves and being part of their group, and it seems they fear being seen as not conforming. For example, being called a RINO is a terrible insult. And this has worked out well for conservatives because they are better at organizing and defining themselves than the liberals.

But I believe we all have schismogenetic urges. I saw this photo on Facebook and it reminded me of how back in the 1960s we all wanted to be individual free spirits, but in reality, the hippie counter-culture was very conforming.

Graeber and Wengrow used the concept of schismogenetic to explain why the hundreds of Native American tribes created very distinctive and diverse societies. I think everyone uses the trait to join the groups and subcultures they want to embrace as their identity. I believe this is why the concept of cultural appropriation has developed in recent years — subcultures want to protect their identity, their brand. And that’s cool. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad trait, but it can lead to schisms divided by hate.

Some of the reviews that are deeply critical of The Dawn of Everything attack it because they consider Graeber and Wengrow of being historical revisionists. And I see this as a schismogenetic trait too. There are those who define themselves by the histories they embrace and they really don’t like the idea that what they’ve learned and accepted is being revised. It challenges their identity.

Science and history are constantly revising their disciplines with new data. The social sciences aren’t as exact as classical physics, so they go through more upheavals. Those upheavals cause new schisms and threaten old ones. Trying to fully grok The Dawn of Everything is difficult. Graeber and Wengrow keep bringing in politics by using studies of prehistory societies. I think this clouds what they are trying to do. At one point they say, “Since this book is mainly about freedom…” but is that true? I thought it was about prehistory. That makes me wonder if the goal of this book is to be schismogenetic.

JWH

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