Ab Incunabulis Ad Astra Per Pedes

O Merciful Lord who art in heav’n, hallow’d be thy name, forgive me the following tandem insult to Linnaean taxonomy and Western philosophy: there are three phyla within the kingdom of Occidental Thought. As is always the case with antiquity, provenance is uncertain, but the materialist phylum is associated with the Epicurean tradition, the pantheist with Stoicism, and the monotheist with Scholasticism. Imagine a mad tea party where Adam Smith sits in Zeno’s seat, Hume in Virgil’s, and William of Ockham (the razor guy) in Aquinas’s. Amusingly, Dante Alighieri is counted among the ranks of the Scholastics, making his inclusion of Virgil among the ranks of the privileged damned a classic example of a backhanded compliment between incompatible schools of thought. And don’t kid yourself, attempts at reconciling the three are doomed. It might be possible to convincingly claim that there is simultaneously no god, many gods, and only one God, but you’d need abundant mescaline and probably some acute dehydration to do the trick.

Still, each school has its analytical uses. Epicurean materialism is pretty good for modeling epochal variations, where the vagaries of human motivations tend to cancel out. God-of-the-Agora Stoicism lends itself well enough to modeling anonymous, impersonal exchange and production. And if you find yourself interested in investigating richly-textured human institutions, spanning the range of virtue and vice, I think you’ll find your ethnography enriched with a generous helping of Scholastic epistemological traditions. But analysis is not prescription, not by a very long shot. The camp you subscribe to (usually tacitly, since bothering with first-principles assumptions detracts from more pressing matters) informs not only what you imagine might be possible, but what is permissible. To an Epicurean like Nietzsche or an unironic interpretation of Machiavelli, political authority squirms from the musty soil of the willful application of forceful intent to a society born of a series of accidents and adventures. For Stoics like John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, politics is a matter of rational cooperation among self-interested constituents. For Scholastics like Chesterton or Maimonides, the political authority is a steward, borrowing the keys to dad’s Camaro, there to make sure degeneracy, vice, and sin don’t corrupt civilization.

The tenor of the political prescriptions that emanate from each philosophical phylum resonate with the cosmology. A practical, no-nonsense materialist political adviser will counsel the sovereign to rule with an eye to his own self-interest: pro-growth policies will enhance the prestige of the throne. Stoic sages appeal to the wisdom of crowds, of the lure of emergent order: for best results, codify those laws that survive the crucible of public scrutiny and judicial review. A Scholastic chamberlain might whisper in the crown’s ear that ’tis the received wisdom of God Almighty through his only mortal Son that grants you the honor of serving your humble constituency. Though the message be different, the effects of well-heeded counsel are nearly indistinguishable: benevolent, beneficent policy well-suited to the task of governing a prosperous nation. At least, that is, when wise counsel is well-heeded.

Whence tyranny? It sure seems like some sorts of philosophical underpinnings should be a better prophylactic against sovereign infidelity than others, but the hastily, poorly-remembered scorecard I mentally summon shows mixed results across the board. Neither the Flower of Perfect Humanity, the Christian God, nor the Yawning Void At the Centre of All Things are adequate bulwarks against the depredations of ambitious elites and their cruel lieutenants.

Whence tyranny? It would be fatuous of me to condescend to offering a pithy answer to such a thorny question. I’m just as prone to blind elephant-grabbing as anyone. From this angle, it’s naked ambition exercised for the sole purpose of dominion as both ends and means. From that angle, it’s instrumental: comfort, glory, and the shimmering promise of posterity. Over here, mere cruelty. Over there, emptyheaded negligence. On this end, we see errant benevolence without wisdom or continence. On that end, cartoon malevolence. It’s possible that I’m prone to be more forgiving of a cruel sovereign that shares my philosophical phylum, but it’s also possible that I’m liable to assign cupidity where mere incompetence would be more appropriate.

Whence tyranny? Well, if it were easy to predict, it might be easy to forestall. Even before the sky broke open and the heavens fell, you could hardly piss in a history book without dampening the pages of some fell despot leering atop his throne of skulls. And now? Now the taste for conquest has turned to ash in men’s mouths, but boring, inept dominion trudges ever onward, propelled by the inertia of ten thousand years.

Anika: “So what’s so bad about this Yakima place anyway?”

It wasn’t until I’d lived in the Mt. Rainier area for a few years that I overcame my confusion about why there was no rail line running from the log yards of Aberdeen to the forests surrounding Randle and Packwood and points east. Looking at a map, it seems awfully circuitous to fell timber just scarcely west of the Cascade divide, push it a hundred and fifty miles down the Cowlitz or the Nisqually to the sea, process it, ship the lumber to Seattle, and only then send it careening over the Snoqualmie Pass on its way to the civilized east. But maps lie. Some maps do anyway. If I’d bothered to check a geologic map, I’d have noticed the abundance of devitrified pyroclastic volcano flows and brittle andesite. It may be technically possible to build rail lines on such unreliable rock, but the prudent engineer balks at the notion of a moderate earthquake disrupting primary interstate commerce. Snoqualmie, despite the lurking Straight Creek fault, hosts relatively stable metamorphic rock on the east slope, with well-settled accreted rock in the west. Put another way, Mt. Rainier rock is alive and restless. Snoqualmie Pass rock sleeps.

Me: “You remember Sacramento?”

Anika: “With all those what-do-you-call-them?”

Me: “Gallows.”

Anika: “Yeah, I remember. They hung that guy right in front of us.”

Me: “The word you’re looking for is ‘hanged.’ ‘Hung’ is for laundry or juries.” She wrinkled her nose in a close approximation of a sneer. Or perhaps it was a jeer. I’m not sure I know the difference. “The murderous free-for-all in Sacramento at least made a weird sort of sense in a political context. They are so desperate to avoid the whiff of despotism that they’ll gleefully stretch the neck of anyone even hinting that they’ll assert political authority without the consent of the governed. Yakima’s different. They’ll execute you for completely arbitrary reasons and they may not be nice enough to give you a fathom of slack rope to do it.”

The SLS&E was the 19th century rail network that eventually became the right-of-way that still stands today, even if it’s the Northern Pacific steel nestled snug in its bed that bore most of the sea freight away from the Puget Sound. Seattle was still young and small in the 1880s, and at the time, little out-of-the-way Centralia still vied for title of biggest town in Western Washington. Linking Seattle to Spokane was of chief importance, but Yakima’s agricultural ascendance during the Dust Bowl made linking the Seattle to Spokane line with the Columbia River Basin line a slam-dunk for investors and consumers alike.

Anika: “I…” she faltered, a hint of anxiety sweat blooming on her brow. “Maybe I’ll make camp outside of town and just wait for you guys to come back.” Her pedaling faltered a little bit.

Clay: “Relax, kiddo. And keep pedaling. We’ve got passports from The Baroness. We’re under treaty. They can’t touch us.” He gave her a reassuring grin. “I’m not kidding about pedaling. We won’t be out of the hills till we see, what? Ellensburg?”

Me: “Cle Elum is about where the worst of it is over.”

Clay: “Okay then. That. Dumb name for a town, but we have to keep up our momentum or we’ll peter out.”

In the mid 19th century, Yakima Valley was cattle country. Mild winters thanks to the insulation provided by the shade of the Cascades made the plains suitable for hunkering down prior to humping it over the mountains to the Sound for transport abroad. An 1892 canal project brought large-scale irrigation to the valley, making it possible to grow the two crops that Yakima is best known for: apples and hops. The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam between 1933 and 1942 only cemented Yakima’s role as the apple and beer basket of the Northwest. These days, agriculture was directed by the incomprehensible set of rules that governed the rest of the society. Yakima had descended into classical totalitarianism, the political process determining the particulars of human behavior from the secular to the spiritual to the commercial. If the rumors were right, the horse racing track had been converted into a dedicated tilt-yard, but with skittish thoroughbreds for jousting mounts instead of stalwart destriers.

Anika: “Peter?”

Brigit: “It means to get tired.”

Anika: “Oh.” She resumed pedaling. “How do we know these passes will work?”

Brigit: “Nothing in life is certain. But I doubt Yakima wants to pick a fight with The Baroness.”

Anika: “Why?”

Clay: “Nothing in it for them. Her Barony is social, not territorial. It can’t be conquered. At best, they gain nothing. At worst, they lose everything.”

Brigit: “You think there would be war if a couple of messengers and their plus ones came back in a four-pack of pine boxes? We’re not exactly Duke Ferdinand.”

Clay: “Well, probably not war.” I caught myself contemplating the etymology of ‘hem’ as it applies to what Clay was doing. “But they certainly don’t have anything to gain.”

Me: “Assuming they’re rational.”

Clay: “Why shouldn’t we assume that?”

Me: “People choosing in groups don’t have to be rational. Haven’t you ever heard of the Condorcet paradox?”

Clay: “I mean ‘rational’ in the colloquial sense. A few days ago, weren’t you going on about how we can think of collectives as entities for the sake of convenience? What would the Yakima egregore get out of killing us?”

Me: “The joy of slaughter maybe? As long as we’re talking egregores again, it’s worth pointing out that the newly-hatched ones are chaotic, unpredictable, prone to fits and spasms. Utterly untrustworthy.” The breeze picked up a little. We were now reliably downwind, but I still kept a close eye on the sail. “Neonatal social developments brought us the Great Leap Forward, Stalin’s purges, debt crises, bloody purges, genocides, all manner of mischief. Egregores age toward stability.”

Brigit: “See? This is exactly my objection. Your metaphor is just a little too tidy. Something horrible happens and you simply lay it at the feet of a ‘newborn egregore.’ History isn’t a vacuum. Mao didn’t spring forth fully armed from Marx’s brow. The Great Leap Forward owed its pedigree to some terrible German political philosophy, yes. But it was also founded in Chinese philosophy that predated the Han. And even the crappy German political economy had roots in Hellenic philosophy that was already getting hoary when Aristotle was debating it. Egregores don’t hatch. They evolve. Or maybe they periodically slumber. Whatever the case, the often-unspoken lemma of Heraclitus’s infamous warning that you can’t step in the same river twice is that-” She paused partly for effect and partly to catch her breath in the middle of her exasperated outburst. Even though we enjoyed a tailwind, we were still pedaling a weird railroad jitney up the side of a mountain pass, “is that there is an actual river. Headwaters, delta, the works. Nothing is ex nihilo. Pretending otherwise is a convenient pretense for self-pious social scientists too clever for their own good by half.”

Me: “So do you trust Yakima or not?”

Brigit: “Not. Didn’t you guys run into cannibals down in old Texas?” The ire had drained from the corners of her eyes, replaced by a murmured promise of grief. “Imagine that instead of errant roving platoons, they’d organize into brigades and had artillery support.”

Anika: “Okay guys, you convinced me. There’s no way I’m going with you. Drop me off in Ellensburg or Cle Elum or wherever and pick me up on the way back.”

Me: “That’s probably not a bad idea. You can watch the animals. Best not to risk it.”

Clay: “Someone should stay with her.”

Brigit: “I’ll do it. We need to have a girls’ chat anyway.” She looked at me pointedly. “Isn’t that right?” It took me a few seconds to get what she was alluding to.

Me: “Oh. Yeah. Yes. Okay.” Anika, if such a thing were possible, looked as uncomfortable as I felt.

Anika: “What are you guys talking about?”

Brigit: “We’ll talk later, okay?”

Anika: “Okay, I guess. What do you guys know about these little towns on the other side of the mountains?”

Me: “I used to live not too far away, but I’d only ever drive through on my way to somewhere else. When we cross the Cascades, you’ll notice the trees change. They’re all Douglas Fir and cedar and stuff here, but they change to mostly pine on the other side. It’s on account of the rainfall. Pine doesn’t need as much water. Cedar is wet wood.”

Anika: “That’s very interesting, but do you know if they got bombed?”

Me: “No idea.” Her question picked the scab off a question that had been festering quietly. “You know, it’s kind of amazing that these rails are clear. If post-apocalypse fiction taught me anything, it’s that the roads and the rails would be choked with abandoned vehicles. Everyone tries to flee the cities, gridlock ensues, people ditch their cars to head cross-country on foot. Remaining survivors shake their heads ruefully at the folly of the masses once the weeds sprout in the cracks of the asphalt. That sort of thing.”

Clay: “Sounds about right. Most of the interstates around the big cities are still clogged with cars.”

Me: “So why not the rails? There’s no real mass exodus issue, but you’d figure that the EMP would damage the electronics enough to kill the diesel engines en route. Worst case, you get derailments or collisions, but even best case, there still should be derelict trains here and there. And who would bother to clear the tracks? That first year was rough. Hauling freight trains off rails is a luxury project when you’re busy dodging rape squads or whatever.”

Brigit: “Or whatever? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Me: “It means that when The Business occurred, I fled for the only safety I’ve ever known: the open ocean. I’m still a bit muddy on what happened on land.”

Brigit: “I neither saw nor heard of any rape squads. I’m now wondering how good your information on Yakima is.”

Clay: “It’s a big country. Easy to miss stuff.”

Brigit: “In the interest of not missing more ‘stuff,’ how about we compare notes on what to expect at our destination?”

Anika: “What do you mean ‘our?’ I thought you were staying with me.”

Brigit: “I am. It’s just an expression.”

Clay: “Good idea. To be honest, all I know is rumor. I’ve never met an expat, and I’ve never visited, not even in the Before Time.” He tried to interject some conscious irony into the last two words of his sentence, and it occurred to me that this is how mythology begins: an adult making a self-aware wisecrack in front of a kid too green to grasp the subtlety.

Me: “I spent a bit of time there in the early 90s. Just a bit though. Enough to sort of get a lay of the land. Haven’t been back since.”

Brigit: “I heard that they have something like a ruling council, but no single head of state. No president or prime minister  or anything like that.”

Clay: “If I understand things right, their laws come from a parlor game. What’s it called?”

Me: “Nomic.”

Clay: “That’s it. Nomic. Some neckbearded shut-ins started playing it in the 90s, and it ended up spinning out of control somehow. Now the whole damn place is in thrall to a game that no one can stop playing on penalty of death. Or worse.”

Anika: “A game? How does that happen? What’s a Nomic?”

Me: “Like Clay said, it’s a parlor game. A group of players starts out with a list of basic rules, and the point of the game is to change the rules of the game. It starts out using majority voting rules, but you can propose any rule change you want, and as long as it passes, it’s a new rule. Play progresses until the victory conditions are met, which are also subject to change according to how the game proceeds. It’s what you might call a meta-game.”

Anika: “Okay, but how does a game go out of control?”

Me: “You know me, I hate to speculate,” Brigit audibly snorted. I kept my smirk to myself, “but if I had to guess, it started out innocently enough, until some joker raised exit costs a little, maybe made a rule inviting other players in easier. Before you know it, you have griefer players in the game, they get a dominant coalition, they lock in nasty rules with poison pills, and you’ve got yourselves a Terror that Robespierre himself would have been proud of.”

Brigit: “Maximilien Robespierre was executed as a counter-revolutionary. You picked an interesting example.”

Me: “Let’s pretend it was intentional.” This elicited a genuine smile. “During the French Revolution, the game overcame the players. My best guess is the same thing happened here. You don’t even need malicious intent for it to happen. All it takes is some mix of unintended consequences and for inherited wisdom to take a vacation.”

Clay: “No shortage of that.”

Anika: “Hey, look! I think I can see the top of the pass. I bet we’ll be going downhill soon.”

Clay: “For now, Annie. We’re just going to have to turn around and do it all over again on our way back.”

Me: “If everything goes well.”

I didn’t mean to sound so ominous. Dire pronouncements are as bad a habit in real life as in literature.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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