On Nations in Transition, and Future We Want

Most states have one of the three foundations – they are either ethnocentric, dynastic, or imperial. An ethnocentric state is built around, and for the benefit of, one distinct ethnic group, which forms the majority of the population, and the basis of the state’s culture, language, and government (i.e.). A dynastic state is built by a specific lineage of rulers, and does not have a general identity unique to it outside of the ruling dynasty (i.e. Saudi Arabia). An imperial state is a centrally ruled entity composed of multiple subject groups and not defined solely through the ruling dynasty, though one group can be dominant (i.e. United States and Russia at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Russia bordering on an ethnocentric model).

Much of modern-day internal social conflict in developed Western states has to do with the transition from an ethnocentric state model to an imperial state model.

Since the purpose of an ethnocentric state is to benefit the ethnic group which set it up, the transition creates an impression of disadvantaging said groups, which creates considerable backlash and “us versus them” mentality. Further, an imperial state by definition has to maintain strong centralized authority, whereas other models can be successfully implemented in more homogeneous societies. This creates an opening for authoritarian, strongman regimes while also galvanizing the opponents of such regimes, especially if the nation is used to laissez-faire government involvement.

Interestingly enough, authoritarian regimes do not have to be built around the formerly majority ethnic group. They simply have to be strong enough to maintain a degree of control over a society with multiple potential power bases, whether through building a workable alliance of minority groups (i.e. Alawite regime in Syria), or by outright intimidation and terror. In time, an authoritarian imperial regime may morph into a dynastic state, especially if no common identity exists, and a singular succession of rulers can hold on to power. Of course, it can also turn into an ethnocentric state through less savory means which typically involve exile or extermination of dissidents and members of the groups excluded from power.

This brings me to the growing pains experienced by the Western societies, and specifically by the United States. The path from an ethnocentric state to an imperial state is not a clear one, and has a very real chance of an outright disaster. Taking into account the inherent factionalism of the human species, an ethnocentric state’s ability to successfully convert to a diverse imperial paradigm hinges upon it developing a shared identity that all of its components subscribe to – in essence, expanding the definition of “us” over the course of the transition.

A great example of this in the United States context is the definition of “white” (yes, the use of the concept is deliberate, considering the socially charged climate with respect to the American concept of “race”) expanding from strictly meaning English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England proper to a very amorphous idea of “white” label used today, and incorporating people with extremely diverse ethnic origins, who would not have been considered under the same definition even a century ago. I see a successful transition of the United States into a true imperial model being dependent on doing away with the labels of ethnicity, religion, and race, and replacing them with an overarching concept of “citizenship” which is not connected to any of those things, but is instead based on a shared ethos.

Some might say that we are already there, but I would point out the difference between theory and practice. When all is said and done, we are a divided society on many levels. We have real problems with unequal application of the rules, though it is not as straightforward as proponents of the extremes claim, and is not always one-sided. We have a real problem with racism, though it is, again, a much more complex issue than the politically correct paradigm, and is not limited to one group. We have a real problem with only allowing one faulty narrative to dictate the development of our culture instead of taking a sober look at who we are, and who we want to be.

We have a complex history, but we do not often consider that we are not unique. Discrimination, exploitation, ethnic violence, religious suppression, tyranny – every nation with sufficiently long history experienced most or all of these things. Many nations and groups still cling on to the legacy of these events and stroke the fires of conflict with centuries-old and often imaginary justification. The longer we cling to the legacy of strife, the longer it will take for us to overcome it.

From here, an ethnocentric state in transition can become several things. It can successfully establish a new identity for all of its’ people as a unifying factor, and become a nation where ethnicity matters about as much as the hair color, religion matters as much as your favorite sports team, and sexual orientation is about as important as the color of your underwear. It can fracture into various components, which become ethnocentric states all their own – sometimes peacefully (Czechoslovakia), sometimes not (Yugoslavia). It can become an authoritarian regime unafraid to use force against the dissenters, ruling its subjects with an iron fist (Russia or Assad’s Syria). It can even become a dynastic state if the conditions are right. In the many cases, a nation can fall to civil strife to get there.

I do not want to see this. I would like to see a world where our divisions are meaningless, and where all segments of our society can operate under a shared set of common values regardless of where we came from.

The way to get there is not through further division. The way to get there is in finding an identity greater than the sum of its parts, looking forward instead of ruminating about the past, focusing on the ways in which we are alike, and being honest about all truths, politically correct and not. If we are not honest about the very real problems in all corners of our society, and are not committed to a true multi-faceted approach without claiming exceptionalism or devising ways in which the rules of conduct should apply to some (but not to all), then the future we want will not be the future we will get. I want to see the Federation, not post-1991 Yugoslavia, but the modern populist rhetoric on both sides will get us the latter, not the former.

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Politics and New Writers

Politics. Need I say more?

Almost everyone has some sort of interest in them, or some ideas on how things are supposed to be, and if you are a writer, chances are you are tempted to insert your politics into the manuscript. After all, even Three-Headed Space Slugs from Betelgeuse can be used to make a point about the latest government scandal, and certain real-world politicians or leaders almost beg to be made into villains for protagonists to defeat. And there are many authors who made a career out of taking their political, social, or religious beliefs and intentionally exaggerating some aspects of such beliefs to write a story – such alarmist fiction tends to resonate well with their reader base even at the cost of alienating some other potential readers.

As you could probably tell by now, today’s post is on the subject of inserting author’s politics into his or her books.

It is only human nature to seek out reading materials that reaffirm our existing worldview. While some literary works can be truly transformative, encouraging the reader to reconsider his or her worldview, such works are rare. Truth is, more often than not people buying books will do so based on their existing preferences; I doubt Tom Cratman gets many sales in politically liberal (in the US sense) areas, and you will probably not see Noam Chomsky sell many copies in conservative parts of the United States. Yes, those two cases are relatively extreme, but they serve to illustrate a point – books with strong ideological component tend to cater to specific readership.

The problem with that, of course, is that said books may have far less appeal to everyone outside of their target audience, and that an author seeking to appeal to that audience may end up pigeonholed into those markets.

It is particularly important for new authors, who strive to get published and build a resume, and who cannot necessarily afford to limit their choices. As much as we already limit our choices through writing specific genres (let’s just say I will not be writing a full-on romance novel or hard-boiled detective drama any time soon), limiting potential audience by having a strong political component can be akin to putting all of your proverbial eggs into one basket.

Of course, there is a flip side to it, too. One of the key advantages of strongly political books is the preexisting audience for them. Just like stories set in certain popular universes (Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000, et cetera) are guaranteed to sell reasonably well, a book with a strong political undertone is bound to appeal to existing readership. A writer who manages to get published on the strength of an ideologically forceful book will have an existing market to tap into.

Personally, I do not like books with heavy-handed ideological treatment. As much as science fiction is supposed to challenge the ideas of what the world is supposed to be like and to make us think about alternatives, it is also supposed to be entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking. As a reader, I would probably not be the target audience for more ideologically-minded writers, as I tend to be put off by prominent, we-are-right-you-are-wrong politics in my reading materials. Yes, some of the most powerful literary works of the modern era were thinly disguised political statements (“1984” anyone?), but such works tend to be few and far between. More often than not, many attempts at profound political statements end up as caricatures, with villains inevitably following the ideology opposed to the author’s, and very few writers can pull it off convincingly without turning the story into an author tract.

As a writer, I will not pretend to be apolitical, but at the same time I will also not make politics a centerpiece of the conflict in my current stories. Someday, this may change, especially if there is a great story in it, and I believe that I can make a convincing point without making the story too overbearing for my readers, but for now, modern-day politics are out for me. This is mostly a conscious decision, although part of it stems from my tastes as a reader – if I don’t want to read it, why would I write it?

With this in mind, what do you think? Do politics have a prominent place in fiction (and especially science fiction and fantasy)? More importantly, should a relatively new writer avoid heavily politicized topics until he or she is more established?