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.

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9 thoughts on “Terry Pratchett and the 99%: A reply to Gavin Chait”

  1. Thanks Sam, I appreciate the discussion. This is a substantial rebutall and I, too, will respond in a post. However, a few points. In Apartheid South Africa there is often the claim that the country was run by a “white minority” – more recent thinking (especially that being used to justify affirmative action policy) has developed a theory that numbers are only part of the situation of oppression, economic power could make a numerically small opposition a “majority”.

    And I suppose the same goes for a small group of heavily armed soldiers with a tank and air-support fighting a numerically stronger army fighting with sticks.

    But this still implies a common purpose. I’d argue that the 1% are not united in their thinking. As was pointed out, the “cut-off” for 1%-hood is about $400,000 a year in earnings. That includes a large number of doctors, lawyers, accountants, small business owners, politically correct celebrities, sports stars, writers and financiers. It also includes people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who, whatever your leanings, are putting their money into an astonishing range of good causes.

    Yes, it includes the Koch brothers, but they hardly lead the 1%.

    As for “redemption”, well, the moment that stands out most strongly for me is when Brutha dies in Small Gods and finds, cowering and sobbing on the cusp of the great desert which all the dead must cross, Vorbis. Death tells Brutha that he should leave him to his fate. But Brutha hefts him up and the last moments of the book deal with Brutha offering his support to lead Vorbis through.

    There may well be many people amongst the Occupiers who believe in the rule of law and want to see it applied – I support that sentiment – but there is a large and intractible bunch who are drawn to this type of conflict who want to see it all burn and want “punishment”.

    To repeat a point I made in a previous comment thread; we are not compassionate to those who wrong us because they have earned it. We are compassionate because we ourselves are compassionate. We are not them. If we behave like “them” in order to “win” then there is no redemption for anyone. The winners of the latest struggle for power will be no different from the last winners.

    A lesson that, sadly, every South African is learning once again the hard way.

  2. I haven’t read any Pratchett, so cannot comment on the particulars of this discussion.

    However, i’ve been reading and/or writing here for quite a while. I do feel confident commenting on major themes. It’s not that i disagree with Gavin’s take that we should all be compassionate towards even those who wrong us. It’s that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth on this theme. Or, more appropriately, one side of his mouth never utters a word. He’s generally quick to point a judging finger in cases like this, but i cannot think of a single instance where he’s applied this moral code to the other side of the equation.

    He did, after all, essentially blame everyone who uses gasoline for the BP spill and mounted a one-man campaign to protect the corporation from unfair attack. He’s doing it again, notice that the power of the 1% is our fault for purchasing things and being employed by them. Or the way he points the finger at the common people and their collecting “entitlements” that he thinks are paid for by the rich; he winds that into the US economic mess and its debt without addressing where most of the actual income tax money gets spent. It’s not on those “entitlements” but on a military industrial complex.

    So i don’t doubt that he sees whatever allegory Pratchett employs differently than Sam, and others in that first thread. He does not empathize or associate himself with the people to whom he preaches a moral code of compassion and upstanding behavior; rather, it seems that he accepts the Social-Darwinist philosophy beloved by conservatives and “libertarians” that’s based heavily on Rand’s hogwash. In pursuit of economic advantage, there are no morals. The 1%, for lack of a better term, are better because they are the 1%. But those who seek redress, being fundamentally less than the “producer” class, shall be held to an impossibly high code of conduct.

    That code is handy, because it makes it easy to point out their failures, which make it equally easy to ignore their motives. I’ll start believing when Gavin holds all people (and corporations) to the same moral code. Until then, i assume that code to be nothing more than a rhetorical and political tool, wielded selectively and for purposes that have nothing to do with morality.

  3. Lex: While I’d probably agree with you on the notion that Gavin always takes one side, I also think that may be a little misleading. I know that I, for instance, have historically spent most of my time in the camp of the loyal opposition, regardless of which side that was. There have been occasions where my positions might have been fairly balanced, but since nobody else was arguing one side I became the spokesguy for that side. Which made me look like that’s all I believed.

    My PhD program, for instance, was predictably far leftist, as most in the social and humanities fields are. Now, I voted the same way as my colleagues did, but I also found fault with some of their intelectual tactics and with the way truth wasn’t also sought so much as it was given. Drove me nuts.

    The upshot was that in a case or two I got called a conservative. Me, a conservative?

    I can’t speak for Gavin, but I suspect that some of what you see if probably a reaction to the dynamic and that in a more two-sided environment you’d find more balance. Just a guess.

  4. I’ve only two wee points to contribute.

    1. Re: “but there is a large and intractible bunch who are drawn to this type of conflict who want to see it all burn and want “punishment”. I’d like to see this “bunch” more clearly identified and defined. Without such clarity, it does seem a tad disingenuous to damn the 99% on account of the “bunch”. Once identified and defined, it would also be nice to see their “agenda” identified and rebutted fairly. Only then would we enter into solid territory when it comes to moralizing about how the “bunch” should feel and or act.

    2. I’m not sure from whence Mr. Chait derives his understanding of the 99%, so I can’t comment on his sources. I’d like to offer my own simplistic take on the general sentiments of the 99% as I understand them. How they/we feel about the 1% (or more accurately, the 0.1%) is how we feel about playing cards. We don’t like playing against a crooked house. We don’t like marked cards, stacked decks and bottom dealing. Any advocacy I’ve yet seen for the 1%’s position in our global economic debacle boils down to advocating for cheating at cards. Strangely, the same folks who love to romanticize a woolly Wild West approach to finance and governance cringe when the Bowie knife comes out and someone calls out a cheat.

  5. Hi Gavin. Thanks for the response.

    I’d argue that the 1% are not united in their thinking. As was pointed out, the “cut-off” for 1%-hood is about $400,000 a year in earnings. That includes a large number of doctors, lawyers, accountants, small business owners, politically correct celebrities, sports stars, writers and financiers. It also includes people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who, whatever your leanings, are putting their money into an astonishing range of good causes.

    It goes without saying that “the 1%” aren’t a unanimous entity. In addition to your own examples, note my recent post on Mark Cuban, for instance. By the same token, the 99% are hardly one mind, either. In fact, if a good portion of them didn’t vote against their own interests you wouldn’t have any of the issues we currently face. The 99% represents the economic condition, not the particular thinking of its individuals.

    This is specifically why I dropped the line about the “hegemony” in there.

    As for “redemption”, well, the moment that stands out most strongly for me is when Brutha dies in Small Gods and finds, cowering and sobbing on the cusp of the great desert which all the dead must cross, Vorbis. Death tells Brutha that he should leave him to his fate. But Brutha hefts him up and the last moments of the book deal with Brutha offering his support to lead Vorbis through.

    Yeah, but Gavin, that happens after Vorbis is dead. If we accept that as the standard then for all we know Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are sipping tea in heaven right now.

    So the idea that after they’re six feet under various monsters might find redemption, well, that strikes me as a trope that renders the very conversation we’re trying to have moot.

    There may well be many people amongst the Occupiers who believe in the rule of law and want to see it applied – I support that sentiment – but there is a large and intractible bunch who are drawn to this type of conflict who want to see it all burn and want “punishment”.

    No doubt. There are also those among the 1% who ought to be shot on sight. I have the misfortune of knowing at least a couple of them.

    Discussions like this require us to focus on the rule, not the exception, right?

    To repeat a point I made in a previous comment thread; we are not compassionate to those who wrong us because they have earned it. We are compassionate because we ourselves are compassionate. We are not them. If we behave like “them” in order to “win” then there is no redemption for anyone. The winners of the latest struggle for power will be no different from the last winners.

    I’d agree with this for the most part, especially at the level of spirituality and personal actualization. In fact, this is a neat statement of why I have made certain significant changes in my own life of late.

    However, when a privileged elite games a system in a way that further enriches those who are already rich beyond all imagining and in the process impoverishes millions of regular working people, the response simply cannot be about spiritual redemption. Societies require real world structures that promote law and justice. We don’t send our criminals to a monastery to meditate for a couple of years so that they might realize the error of their ways, we lock them up so that a) they can’t do any more damage, and b) they might hopefully serve as a deterrent to others who are considering similar kinds of action.

    Perhaps after they die the Koch brothers will encounter Brutha and Vorbis in the desert and there they might be redeemed. What we need now is for the undue anti-democratic influence of our society’s worst fixers to be corrected and for those who committed crimes to be brought to justice. Nothing more and nothing less, and these are precisely the outcomes that the Occupy movement

  6. Ah, but Sam, the redemption I’m talking about is not theirs. It is ours. We don’t redeem Vorbis because he is worthy of it. We redeem him because we are.

    My favourite clarifying belief is that said by Ghandi: become the change you seek.

    You do not end the special pleading rights of the super rich by granting others special pleading rights. I’ve seen how affirmative action in South Africa has become a license for corruption and neglect which benefits a new connected elite but does nothing for the majority.

    I’ve written more than enough about the dangers of such special pleading and crony capitalism over the years not to repeat it here but a new “fairer” system is not going to change things overnight. Worse, we’ve let things stray so far from a real free market – throwing one crisis after the next into the future – that the cost of fixing this is going to be a lifetime or more.

    There are no politicians in any Western nations willing to tell their people that there is no way the good times are coming back. Neither are they prepared to redress the situation. If they were – and if we would vote for them when they said it – we could deal with this, maybe inside of ten years we could fix it. But we would all have to accept a bit less than we were hoping for, rich and poor alike. Do you think that the Tea Party, Move On or Occupy movements could find common ground on this?

    And all of this is very sad.

    1. Ah, but Sam, the redemption I’m talking about is not theirs. It is ours. We don’t redeem Vorbis because he is worthy of it. We redeem him because we are.

      As I said, I’ve made significant changes in my life of late and there are specific reasons why.

      But redemption is kind of like forgiveness. There is the piece of the act that is about us and then there is the piece that’s about the object of forgiveness. And even Jesus doesn’t forgive the guy who doesn’t repent, right?

      I really feel like you’re attributing something to the Occupy movement that isn’t there. You’re making it out to be some kind of insensate anti-rich-guy jihad which wants people condemned to hell based exclusively on their net worth. It is not that, nor is it anything like it. I know plenty of these people and they are not opposed to being rich. They do not hate you because you’re rich any more than they love you unconditionally if you aren’t. They simply want a fair system and the just application of the rule of law. Period.

      You do not end the special pleading rights of the super rich by granting others special pleading rights. I’ve seen how affirmative action in South Africa has become a license for corruption and neglect which benefits a new connected elite but does nothing for the majority.

      As valuable as your experience with SA is, at times I think it blinds you where the US is concerned. You have pointed out to me repeatedly, when I go on and on about the despair I feel over the hopeless corruption that exists here in the US, that the US IS NOT like South Africa. Then you prove it to me and this is helpful because it restores some of my perspective. I can’t tell you how valuable that is to me.

      But you are projecting onto the Occupy movement motivations and policy demands that simply do not exist. NOBODY is asking for special pleading rights. They are asking for EQUAL rights, for a fair and equal application of the law.

      The Republicans here have at times (most recently I think about gays demanding equal treatment under the law) accused groups of demanding special rights. Gays react against being denied housing because they’re gay, for instance, and the conservative response is that gays want “special rights.” Of course, this isn’t correct. They simply want the same rights that everyone else has.

      There are no politicians in any Western nations willing to tell their people that there is no way the good times are coming back.

      No. That would be inconsistent with the goal of getting re-elected. And as you have noted, quite accurately, we are a society that is way too complicit with the corporations that we’re mad at. Wufnik’s piece the other day was just dead-on – the Occupy movement accomplishes nothing if all it wants is the chance to be as consumerist as those who currently have all the dough. I think that’s a perspective that you agree with, and I’m on board, too.

      Neither are they prepared to redress the situation. If they were – and if we would vote for them when they said it – we could deal with this, maybe inside of ten years we could fix it. But we would all have to accept a bit less than we were hoping for, rich and poor alike. Do you think that the Tea Party, Move On or Occupy movements could find common ground on this?

      I think it would be great if they did, but I don’t know that I’m optimistic. I’ll cultivate some hope when the Occupy movement begins talking about the need not just to redistribute the wealth, but to realign our country’s economy in a way that is far more about sustainability than it is growth. When the Occupy speeches begin talking about what we do once we win, and that is to drive a stake through the heart of America’s affluenza, then we’ll be on the right track.

      1. One more thing. I know that you’re coming to the US in the next few weeks for the first time. I really encourage you to head down to Wall Street and spend some time talking to these folks first-hand. I’d be interested to know what you think having done that.

  7. Just found this website via my Google News feed on Terry Pratchett. I’m home.

    After reading a few posts, I find it odd that no one has pointed out that the concept of a 1% and a 99% are simply slogans, used to shock and drive home a point. I hardly believe that the occupy protesters are sitting around under the delusional belief that 1% of the US and other countries should be stripped of their wealth and handed out to the 99%, or for that matter that doing so would solve any of the actual issues that exist in this and other countries. Any individuals who do believe this are a fringe group, who should be ignored. You could include in this group those who believe in faith healing and others who run around wearing tin foil hats. Certainly not the main stream.

    My take on the Occupiers is partially how Sam described it; Fair and balanced application of low. Whats more is that the laws should be decided by the majority, the ones who vote into office the politicians who create the laws, NOT those who have more money. Obviously, there are loop holes in the previous statement. Not all laws should favor the majority, some must protect the minority. However, as a general rule, if you have a billion dollars and I have ten dollars to my name, your ability to offer substantial amounts of money through a phony non-for profit organization (insert : americans for prosperity:) should in no way sway that politicians mind.

    Seem ridiculous? Not to me. There is an easy way to solve this. No more money from private parties to fund public elections. No more Wal-Marts giving millions of dollars to keep the minimum wage down. No more Shells and Bp’s spending billions of dollars to keep oil subsidies and tax breaks.

    The 1% controls most of the above mentioned examples. Or at least, those in the 1%. Its an easy moniker and identifier. Its hardly a precise description.

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