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On where to put your black swans. - Elf M. Sternberg
On where to put your black swans.

Joseph Fouche has a fascinating article entitled Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization. I don’t know anything about Fouche, although the blogroll he belongs to suggests a right-libertarian bent with touches of joyful submission to authoritarianism (Althouse? Really?), but this article of his has all the makings of a classic for writers of epic fantasy.

Fouche’s starts by describing the premises of Nassim Nicholas Taleb: when historians look back on history for the cause of some famous historical catastrophe, they tend to look too far. They look for a narrative in history that connects all of the dots leading up to the horrible event they’re documenting, trying to discern which ones were causative and which ones were not. There are, naturally, academic objections to the narrative theory of history, which show that political catastrophes are not the result of long-term trends but are immediate chaotic perturbations that lead to disasters. Thus, for example, people link 9/11 to the execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966, whereas the more proximate cause of 9/11 can be found in Saudi politics less than a decade earlier. (I think I’ll take issue with his characterization of the bank disaster; many economists agree the perturbations that lead to the great recession could have been damped by Glass-Steagel.)

Fouche then says, rightly I think, that what’s missing from the argument about whether or not long-term narrative or proximate perturbations of political equilibria can be used to describe the causes of catastrophe is this: the personal narrative of the actors. His example is WWI, but 9/11 works fine. Bin Laden had little interest in attacking “The West” in the 1980s: his interest was in rooting out corruption and the invasion of outsiders within the future Caliphate, most notably the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Qutb’s opinions on America, which were substantial, were minimal to Bin Laden’s overall ideology. After the invasion of Kuwait, Saudia Arabia allowed the US to operate on Saudi soil, and that slotted itself into Bin Laden’s personal narrative about the purity of the Caliphate, and generated a response.

If you’re a writer, this is a great idea.  Instead of deep and ancient narratives leading up to the emerging crisis, what you need is a villain with some authority who has had a long-standing personal narrative– of personal greatness, of ancient darkness, of national unity, whatever– and then craft a few small events that he can, in his mind, coerce into being part of his personal narrative.  How much coercion he must do to make it fit makes a great measure of his corruption.   You can even point out failures to contain the perturbations he creates, failures of personal action or legal frames, and show how his narrative is powerful enough to infest others, overcome such objections, and lead to disaster.

On the other hand, it also reduces the idea of heroism to a counter-point.  I’m still thinking about how to contain that.

This entry was automatically cross-posted from Elf's writing journal, Pendorwright.com. Feel free to comment on either LiveJournal or Pendorwright.


3 comments or Leave a comment
From: technoshaman Date: March 6th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Most heroes were just doing what seemed like a good idea at the time circumstances were set before them. Damn few people actually *set out* to save the world, or even a teeny portion of it. (Davy Crockett comes to mind as one of them... "..you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”)
houseboatonstyx From: houseboatonstyx Date: March 6th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting! But would a Good Guy leader be followed in drastic action, if it did not resonate with a great many of his followers -- who may have been influenced by the previous historical events.
tagryn From: tagryn Date: March 6th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
The narratives do intersect and influence one another. For example, Qutb's influence on bin Laden (indirect at best) was via SQ's role in shaping the early Muslim Brotherhood, which strongly influenced Zawahiri's thinking, and then bin Laden's and AQ, after BL and Zawahiri met.
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