SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Terrible Rulers and Terrible Aim
Who were they kidding, we'll probably be fooled again.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
You wake up to another day as ruler over an expansive and fertile land dotted with farms and villages as far as you can see from the tower in your estate. The sun rises over your subjects and you stretch as you prepare for another day of creating prosperity and building a powerful society.
There is one obstacle, though—you are a terrible ruler.
Nearly every subject in your kingdom worries about their next meal if they aren’t more preoccupied with the increasingly violent groups showing up on the outskirts of town, robbing and killing indiscriminately.
The farmers have little to no morale, as most of their last crop has failed, leaving them impoverished and everyone hungry.
Your soldiers are far from their homes and have little pride about their campaign; you’ve sent them forward and forward in a quest to expand your territory beyond that of the previous ruler’s. With broken weapons and shoddy armor, your fighters refuse to fight any longer and begin returning home, demoralized and dishonored.
They will find little comfort in that return, though, as food is growing scarcer and crime is growing bolder.
Your court has turned almost entirely against you. After refusing their counsel again and again, only to yield a failed harvest and a failed war campaign, your advisors are grumbling about your inability to listen and lead.
The future of your reign is unclear and you know it. How will you save yourself and still save your power and riches, terrible ruler?
If you are a foolish and terrible ruler, you’ll double down on your failed methods and your kingdom and power will be taken from you as the result of that arrogance or ignorance.
If you are a cunning and terrible ruler, you’ll adopt one of the most reliable strategies for gaining control of a population and harnessing their resentment for your own ends.
A terrible ruler, you’ve announced a decree, an urgent warning to all the kingdom:
Some farmers have been caught making deals by moonlight with a foreign god. It is crucial in this time of danger to be vigilant and report any questionable behavior or speech from your neighbors.
As citizens of Dystopistan, your loyalty and passion in protecting our village from the curses brought on by selfish farmers will save our kingdom from certain destruction.
As your people panic and human nature colludes with your scheme to find curses and causes for curses in everyday life, all attention shifts away from your failed policies and unto the peasants suffering from them.
Make no mistake, terrible ruler, your strategy is costly and destructive; you’ve chosen your most productive subjects—the farmers—to be scapegoated. Your subjects will live in panic and all prosperity will shrink as their resentment over the hardships you’ve created turns to viciousness against any neighbors they perceive as slightly less beleaguered. The strife in your kingdom makes it dangerously vulnerable to attack and usurpation by foreign enemies, as any sense of unity is destroyed by suspicion and frenzy.
But for now, you are the hero and noble leader that has saved his kingdom from evil forces, terrible ruler.
The strategy used to temporarily save your ass at the expense of your kingdom is an ancient one, having first been put into words sometime around the reign of Phillip II of Macedon, 359-336 BC:
Divide et impera: Divide and rule.
It’s such a simple and effective idea it’s popped up all over history, from James Madison to Julius Ceasar, from Napoleon to Kant.
If you want to keep a population from rising up and revolting, a simple sleight of hand to shift their focus from you unto their neighbors will do the trick every time.
The phrase divide and conquer is so simplistic and true it’s almost cliche. I mean really, what are we, in some kind of dystopian power-grabbing world full of would-be tyrannical leaders with no regard for individual sovereignty? Come on, everything’s fine. Buy a knickknack from Amazon and grab some artificial will-to-live from Starbucks. Fun!
If you’re really feeling impotent, yell at strangers online about why their choices are the reason you’re miserable.
Yes, divide and rule is alive and well anywhere you find a ruler with a little more love for their rule than for your rights. When Hitler pointed at the Jews and when Stalin pointed at the kulaks (peasants doing slightly better than other peasants), they were harnessing the anger and insecurity in their population to divide and rule.
This strategy is powerful because it exploits some of our most natural tendencies—scapegoating and tribalism.
Humans just love a good, old-fashioned monster story about why some marginally different humans are to blame for all our troubles.
The natural tendency of humans to divide themselves leaves an open invitation for power-hungry leaders to rule. For many, the impulse to divide and rule rather than unite and lead may be as natural and unintentional as their personality. You can spot the workings of a divide and rule leader with a few clues:
Turning events into opportunities to fuel anger and further a “story” (does every problem and event have the same, simple and monstrous cause?)
Stoking animosity and distrust between local leaders (do your leaders talk more about other leaders than missions and systems?)
Raising up and celebrating those who accidentally or purposefully further division or support the ruler (can extreme, unnuanced, or fawning rhetoric get you praise and attention from higher-ups?)
Creating and encouraging division and animosity between subjects (any major media organization can provide a great example).
Division and animosity between different groups is the usual state of human existence—that’s why any added kindling to this ever-present tinderbox can quickly go up in flames.
The way California is obsessive about preventing forest fires should be a fraction of our passion for preventing culture fires. Maybe we need a Smokey the Dragon Who Will Destroy Everything You Love and Value cartoon to remind us how flammable our society truly is.
Terrible ruler, your time has come. The last of the farmers has been executed, the last of the harvest has been consumed, the last of the soldiers has refused to fight alongside his evil neighbor, and your kingdom of cards is soon to collapse.
On the horizon is a greater power, a noble ruler who unites his people in service of a mission greater than his own glory. This noble ruler does not distract his people with a fear of hidden enemies amongst them, but motivates them to pursue a bigger victory—the glory of a powerful and prosperous kingdom.
The noble ruler’s subjects don’t tear their own village apart seeking monsters among their neighbors; such frenzy and intolerance are shamed by the culture as a threat to the unity needed for their grand civilization.
But you, terrible ruler, you have divided your own kingdom for a short reprieve from your failures. Were you ignorant or arrogant enough to believe you’d escape them forever?
Whether by the hands of your subjects or the hands of a greater ruler, when you divide your own kingdom for your own gain, you reign on borrowed time.
Populism is a word we’ve never heard more in the last few years and that alone earns it more scrutiny.
Yes, you’ve read correctly—populism sits right there below the big bold words GÜD. Although you may have heard it used in an almost exclusively negative way—and it certainly has been—populism is simply too large and diffuse of a concept to casually dismiss. Populism has mostly been conflated with right-wing politics today, but it has a very real and long history with left-wing politics as well.
After all, what could be more leftist than a political philosophy that emphasizes the power of the people?
At its most basic formulation, that’s all populism really is—the idea that the ordinary majority should take precedence over an elite minority.
All the flavors of populism that please or disturb us are added in along the way as “the majority” and the “elite minority” are identified or misidentified.
Are “the people” defined by their class status, by their ethnic identity, or by their nationality? If you think populism is the domain of disaffected white mid-western men, it’s time to put down your New York Times paper and look to history.
The first true usage of the term populism started with a left-wing movement of farmers pushing for changes you might still want today—direct election of Senators, a graduated income tax, and a shorter work week—but there’s nothing uniquely American about populism.
In Latin America, populism has shown up as deeply left-wing and often nationalistic in response to international influence seeming to inhibit a country’s sovereignty. Bolivia’s socialist populism took the form of ethnopopulism, where leader Evo Morales defined a split between the mestizo and indigenous people and the European-descended elites.
That might sound like a classic underdog uprising, but like most ideas, when populism fills out its us vs. them format with racial or cultural identities, things get uncomfortable pretty quickly. Nazi Germany borrowed the rhetoric of ethnopopulism to focus its people on a “common enemy”, but lacked the crucial element required for populism to be populism—the people’s power over their government.
What politician today doesn’t appeal to the people and the importance of the people’s voice in government? This reality makes populism hard to pin down. Even the politicians that position themselves as against the elite are often themselves part of that elite.
Yet, populism’s appeal isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Scratch the surface of some conservatives’ respect for traditional hierarchies or those cult-of-personality saint candles with a politician’s face on it and you’ll find that populism isn’t always so popular.
Few people will openly state their support for elitism—a reversal of populism that places more trust in a society’s elites than its common people—but despite its silver-spoon-sounding title, you’re likely more familiar with elitism than you think.
The opposite of populism is a view that sees the average person as dangerous and immoral, thus less in need of a “voice” and more in need of oversight by a morally, intellectually, and culturally superior elite.
If you were—perhaps—worried about unfettered conversations happening among the common people, or—perhaps—the consumption of literature and media that offends your preferences, you might believe there’s a mass of people who simply don’t know what’s best for them.
It doesn’t take a royal title or a million dollars to be an elitist.
Particularly in times of economic hardship, rapid cultural change, political corruption, or other causes of societal alienation that leave people feeling neglected and disrespected by their government, seeking a response to the system’s failures that isn’t pre-approved by the system itself is attractive.
Considering that, it’s no surprise that populism was the “Word of the Year” as declared by the Cambridge Dictionary in 2017. With a closer inspection of what the often nebulous term populism means, its güd side becomes a little more clear.
While populism can run far, far astray of what anyone might consider good in the forms it can take, that’s primarily because it’s not a full ideology, but more of an appetizer to ideology.
Populism has shown up on both the left, center, and right in Italy, neoliberal to far left in Latin America, combined with Islam in Turkey and Hinduism in India, or in farmer’s movements in both Russia and the US.
What often goes missed about this universal phenomenon is how effectively people can join together when they adopt a shared identity that quells the usual tension arising from their differences.
Whether it was the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Wall Street Bets event, the election of Donald Trump, or the momentous campaign of Bernie Sanders—it is a very, very, very foolish mistake to underestimate the ability of the people to band together toward a common cause.
The danger has never been in the people, but in who the people identify as their enemy.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.