Terry Pratchett and the 99%: A reply to Gavin Chait
When we were putting S&R together in 2007 I hunted down Gavin Chait and begged him to join us. He’s one of the smartest guys I know, a relentless, good faith thinker and someone you can count on to hit you with a perspective you hadn’t thought about. He wrote our very first post and also penned at least one of our absolute very best posts.
We don’t always agree, though. (Which is good – how boring would it be if we did?) In a recent post, Gavin addressed the topic of the latest Discworld novel in a post entitled “Terry Pratchett and the redemption of the Orcs.” If you review the post and the comment thread you’ll see that I take Gavin to task for misrepresenting Pratchett. Gavin’s reply (@2) neatly gets to his overarching point:
The 1% sell us stuff. If we bought it, we’re complicit. Claiming that we bought under duress isn’t going to wash. Claiming that the 1% are different from ourselves does a disservice to us.
And I’m not claiming that the 1% are an oppressed minority. They’re already a minority, that’s a given. I’m saying that making these claims about them will turn them into an oppressed minority.
Normally I’d carry this discussion on in the comments, but occasionally I feel like a discussion deserves to be brought forward and addressed in a new post, and this is such a case. In sum, I agree, to some extent, with the point I think Gavin intends to make, which is that scapegoating can lead us down an ugly path. History certainly provides fodder for that argument. However, it strikes me that in invoking Pratchett in the way he does, Gavin does a disservice to the ethos of Discworld and undercuts his own thesis.
I’d begin with a challenge to his characterization of “the 1%.” The problematic concept here is “minority.” In normal parlance, this term usually connotes a social, political or economic disadvantage resulting from a group’s small numbers. However, the term is of no value when discussing groups that comprise a numerical minority but that have political or economic heft all out of proportion to their numbers. Gavin, being a native South African, needs no lessons from me on one prominent example, the ruling whites under Apartheid.
In truth, many societies have been dominated by “the 1%” throughout history. Only under modern theories of governance like democracy, communism or socialism are the majority assumed to possess the power. So any argument that America’s ruling elites are a minority in any meaningful way is numerically accurate, but otherwise misleading. They have a vastly disproportionate share of the power and wealth (the 400 richest Americans own as much as the poorest 150 million) and even an elementary study of contemporary America indicates their effectiveness in using this leverage to cultivate arguably the most mystifyingly potent hegemony in human history.
I’d also point to Gavin’s list of the grievances against American corporations and the section that follows:
Like the Spanish Inquisition before them, that one has had the thought that something is possible is all the evidence required to damn someone utterly.
Guilt is obvious, there is no appeal and there is certainly no need for anything so paltry as evidence or a trial. The 1% are beyond redemption. And when a body of people is beyond redemption then any form of collective punishment is seen as having divine sanction. The vermin will be destroyed.
In this way minorities have been corralled and made sacrificial effigies for millennia.
This is compelling writing, but it asks us to believe that the bulleted list of charges sprang out of thin air. On the contrary, that list is not a collection of first principles that we are asked to accept as a priori assumptions, but is rather a concise rendering of conclusions based on expansive familiarity with the political economic dynamics that have ushered us to our present dire moment.
Further, the #Occupy protesters are not asking for a lynching. One of their explicit demands is that those who gamed the system to their gain and to the ruin of those who trusted them be brought to trial. No one is storming the jail or throwing a rope over a limb. Instead, what is demanded is the application of the rule of law, a function that has been corrupted by the aforementioned power and wealth.
Next, some thoughts on how Gavin characterizes the Discworld mythos. I haven’t heard Sir Terry talk about his politics, so all I can do is try and infer from his writings. The conclusions I’d draw are that he believes in communitarianism and strong, responsive government. If you pay close attention to the Granny Weatherwax cycle, for instance, there is no question that he sees it as a society’s responsibility to take care of its own. Granny and her fellow witches aren’t government agents (unless you count Magrat Garlick marrying the king), but they never miss a chance to encourage their constituents to behave charitably. Sometimes this encouragement is rather … pointed.
You might respond that this is purely libertarian, because we’re seeing the free will actions of individuals, and to a point I would grant you the argument. But look at Ankh-Morpork. There’s nothing remotely libertarian at work there – Lord Vetinari’s word is law, and he’s frighteningly pragmatic about things. All he cares about is that it works. There’s not much ideology anywhere in sight, and he’s not above using any tool at his disposal to assure that things continue to function.
The result? A prosperous, booming city that – and this is important – is a model of racial diversity. Dwarves and trolls coexist with humans (and vampires, and werewolves, and gnolls, and goblins, and the occasional zombie), and do so with no more in the way of violence and disharmony than you’d find in most major modern cities. A big part of why it works is because Vetinari is crafty about holding the traditional power elites in check. Doing so allows the bottom-up emergence of opportunity by those not born to influence.
Up next, Gavin makes a curious claim on Pratchett’s behalf.
Terry Pratchett, writer of the universally successful Discworld series of books, has been one of my favourite authors for more than 25 years. Even his most evil characters are redeemable. [emphasis added]
This strikes me as patently wrong. In fact, Pratchett has given us a goodly number of evil characters with no redeemable qualities whatsoever.
- Lady Felmet (a Lady Macbeth type from Wyrd Sisters) has very little to recommend her.
- Likewise Lilith, the evil fairy godmother in Witches Abroad.
- Gavin’s invocation of the Inquisition above is noteworthy as we consider the rank malevolence of Vorbis, head of the Quisition, in Small Gods.
- The elven queen in Lords and Ladies (and later in the Tiffany Aching cycle)? Sweet hell, where was the redemption in her?
- Angua’s brother, Wolfgang, demonstrates no apparent redeeming qualities in The Fifth Elephant.
- Carcer, from Thief of Time, is one of the most relentlessly evil characters you’re likely to see and he remains that way up until the moment of his death.
- Corporal Strappi in The Monstrous Regiment – pure Stasi.
- Then there’s the unparalleled sociopathy of Mr. Teatime in Hogfather.
- In a case that serves as a rather direct indictment of “the 1%,” consider The Grand Trunk Company and Reacher Gilt in Going Postal.
- In Unseen Academicals, Andy Shank seems to be every stupid, hateful British soccer hooligan all rolled into one, and if there is ever any hope of redemption for him it doesn’t happen in the actual book.
- In the latest novel, Snuff, we’re treated to two irredeemable characters, the younger Lord Rust (who doesn’t actually appear, but who is the unseen instigator of the crimes against the goblins) and the homocidal Stratford.
This isn’t the whole list, either. It is true that Pratchett finds hope for redemption in all races, but there is simply no argument to made for all individuals. Perhaps it’s the racial/collective angle Gavin is thinking of when he makes this argument:
He does not condemn, he does not judge. He offers compassion, empathy and the recognition that we are reflections and interconnections of each other.
I don’t know. I’d argue that Pratchett is judgmental as hell. Sam Vimes, for instance, is relentless in making and pursuing judgment against the corrupt. However, “compassion, empathy and the recognition that we are reflections and interconnections of each other” are perhaps the standards of humanity. It is the failure to live according to these values that is the hard line in the sand where judgment is concerned.
In the final analysis, the orcs and goblins seem to me to be in no way comparable to the 1%. On the contrary. It’s young Lord Rust who’s the 1% and the goblins are the 99% he’s selling into slavery.
Pratchett does, indeed, redeem the possibility inherent in every race and affords a space for redemption no matter what your station in life. On this point Gavin and I couldn’t agree more. Pratchett distinguishes between how we’re born and what we choose to do, and perhaps here is the nut of what I think is wrong with the argument Gavin frames out in his post. The 1% that Occupy Wall Street is protesting against is not a downtrodden minority and they are not the focus of prejudice in the way that Pratchett’s orcs and goblins are. The rage against them is rooted in law and evidence and the call is not for obliteration of a class but for a just and legal program of redress.
As presently constructed, the “orcs = the 1%” argument is like conflating armed robbers with African-Americans. Sure, both groups have their haters, but there’s no equivalency beyond that.