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Undemocratic Gala

You may have noticed that, in the great tradition of fantasy, the realm of Gala is not in the least bit a democracy, all cumbersome and participatory and done up in friction and minutiae. It is, rather, a much more primitive, viscerally gratifying system: Gala is functionally an oligarchy, and, in spirit, an autocracy.

Nor is this some grandfathered mistake of a younger Josh. Clear back in 1999, at the very onset of ATH the RPG, the nearby Kingdom of Soda Fountain was, albeit a monarchy, democratically elected. And for all its democratic nobility it had the honor of being the first nation conquered by Gala. Meanwhile, in all the years The Curious Tale has been in development, Gala was never—not once—in serious contention for being written as democratic. I never desired it, and, when I specifically forced myself to consider this line of possibility anyway, numerous game-ending objections appeared, not least of which was that, as a democracy, Gala would never have been able to do what it needed to do. That, and it's also just personally unsatisfying to design a system subjecting the power of worthier characters to the approval of less worthy ones.

Not for Democracy...

Longtime friends and readers will know that I am not and never have been a lowercase-D democrat. I have always supported our American democracy quite vigorously, but only circumstantially. The "circumstances" here are both that I am a citizen in a democratically organized nation whose success is in my direct interest, and that I am something of a political realist (more on that below), but, even so, in my spark I have never cherished democracy and I anticipate humanity eventually implementing something better.

I don't talk about my views on the matter all that often these days, because for one thing I have little new to say beyond what I have said in the past, and for another it is a needlessly provocative statement to make: In our society we take democracy so completely for granted as the only acceptable form of governance that anyone who says they aren't a democrat immediately falls under suspicion as a villain. "What horrific form of government do they support, then? Communism? Nazism? Nazi-Commie-ism?!"

The ideas of democracy and fascism in particular have been on my mind ever since the disastrous election. The election itself was a bomb against democratic legitimacy, while accusations of fascism have become almost ubiquitous in the ensuing fallout, and true fascists have begun to come out of the political woodwork like termites. It is a dangerous, dismaying time.

When it comes to democracy, there isn't much that I will go out of my way to say I agree on with C.S. Lewis, that also-ran to the great Tolkien, but, by fluke, his intrinsic conviction in democracy describes well my own circumstantial alliance with it:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they're not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure... The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

Shorter Lewis leads to that pithy remark popularized by Churchill: "[D]emocracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried..."

I have witnessed a preponderance of truth to this. That's why I'm so anxiously reluctant to endorse antidemocratic rhetoric among some of my ideological peers. Truth be told, I don't trust my peers to rule in any system of rule by the few. I have met exceedingly few people in my whole life whom I would trust. With democracy, and barring a significant corruption of propaganda (the likes of which runs rampant in America right now), at least you can count on a large proportion of the people to vote in their own interests. This has the unintended but vital consequence of balancing things away from countless dangerous extremes. The proof is in the pudding: Despite the inherent flaw of democracy—that popularity cannot logically determine validity—and the numerous dissatisfying results of democratic elections over time, the society of liberty and material wellbeing in America and in the whole Western world is indisputable. Nor is it lost on me that millions of people have died over the past 250 years to bring this world into being and protect it from destruction at the hands of far worse governments, bringing me and others a better way of life than we would have had otherwise, and I respect that deeply even if I philosophically disagree with democracy as the ultimate form of government.

That's why I have chosen to be an honorary democrat so vigorously for all this time: Here in the real world, in this place, at this point in history, anything that would succeed our democracy would be far worse, almost certainly, just as has almost always been true throughout history.

But in a better world it would be very different. Perhaps I am ahead of my time, or perhaps just fundamentally misguided about what human nature is capable of refining. Either way, I often find reprieve from these onslaughts of the daily news by turning to thoughts of Gala, whose undemocratic outcome looks a lot happier than America's is shaping up to be.

...But Meritocracy

I am for meritocracy—a form of governance whereby the leaders are those most qualified to lead. I don't claim supreme ethical superiority on this point, either. (Not anymore!) I've come to realize that, along with some more flattering reasons, the motivation for my meritocratic bent is in some part quite primitive: Human nature lends itself much more viscerally to understanding autocratic systems of leadership—including the small, personality-driven meritocratic systems that I envision for Gala with such imputations of nobility—than to understanding highly engineered social systems like democracy. As the Galans themselves are keenly aware, the "bad guys" will always choose a form of government just like Gala's. (And the "good guys" seldom will.) It's primal, chest-pounding stuff, that plugs directly in to our visualizations of personal agency and power. When we imagine great accomplishments for ourselves, we seldom form those visions along the lines of "...and then I shall roundly persuade the committee and win a referendum of the people!" No, it's "...and then I'm going to do all this stuff." Democracy is sufficiently abstract as to lack visceral appeal.

There's another problem, too: Unfortunately, meritocracy suggests itself to be one of those lovely forms of government that isn't capable of being generalized, meaning that quite possibly it cannot encompass an entire society by itself. Instead, meritocracy only appears to exist locally within other forms of government. Indeed, many of the greatest performances of America's government (and virtually all governments) over the centuries have been meritocratic in form, and democratic only by socioeconomic happenstance: In other words, sometimes the right people just so happen to win elections (or otherwise come to power), and then go on to lead well in meritocratic fashion.

In that sense, the usefulness of meritocracy as a concept is diluted, as it basically just describes individual competence in whatever prior form of government. The actual meritocratic organization of a government by and for itself—especially if we insist on a strict definition of merit—is historically rare. Nonetheless, for all our real-world evidence to the contrary, human civilization is young and it yet could be that the long-term and large-scale instability of meritocracy are surmountable. It is in this theoretical space that the government of Gala is composed.

By the way, I don't mean to undersell my conviction in meritocracy. I could point to the heavy influence of Star Trek upon me, with its utopian blend of meritocracy and autocracy. I could point to the paradigm of the philosopher-king. I think if we could crack the puzzle of how to set up a meritocracy, the rewards would be beyond measure.

Meritocracy in Gala

In democracy the mechanism of governmental organization is elections. In meritocracy, there must be some objective measure of defining and evaluating merit. Despite a dearth of pure meritocracies, history is full of real-world meritocratic systems within other forms of government. In the ancient Roman Republic, military service was a prerequisite to holding office. Ancient China held proficiency exams. Even the United States has some meritocratic tests built into the Constitution, in the form of age and nativity limitations.

Now, of course, it's open to debate whether military service, proficiency exams, age requirements, native birth, or whatever else are truly indicative of the merit to hold a given office. I haven't got the steam or the space to make a foray into that arena here today. What I can do is talk about Gala.

In Gala, I've designed a fairly elaborate system of governmental organization over the years, some of which I have discussed in previous Curious Tale Saturdays. At the center of its meritocratic structure are the Meretange Individual and the assession system of the Guard of Galavar. Basically, it was understood in Gala that they had captured lightning in a bottle, and that it was more important to act on that potential quickly and wholly than to get labored down in devising a system of governance that looked better on paper, or had a stronger theoretical foundation, but which in practice could conceivably underperform the much simpler if ethically problematic "Rule by Galavar and the Guard." Which brings me to:

Why Not a Democracy?

This is a great question. There are many reasons, but the distillation of them all is that democracy is unreliable in the face of abstract imperatives, because even uncommonly worthy people (and Gala is a nation of poached talent) do not often know what is best for themselves and the broader social welfare better than the best people do, and because democracy almost never reaches the height of governmental potential due to the inherent frictions, vagaries, and whims of a democratic electorate and its ensuing government. It's the same reason the military isn't democratic: Gala has a very explicit purpose, and that purpose requires sustained, deliberate, oftentimes quickly-determined action. Democracies are incapable of being as responsive and strategic as some other forms of government.

Because of these inherent deficiencies, democracy invalidates itself as a justifiable form of government in Gala. One of my favorite philosophical concepts that I didn't explicitly invent myself is the Categorical Imperative, specifically the formulation that says "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." This is something that I had already implicitly understood but which I had never distinctly recognized by the time I learned of the Categorical Imperative.

The Curious Tale contains a number of increasingly potent nested implementations of the Imperative, going inward from the outermost and weakest ring, which applies to all of The Curious Tale, to the innermost nucleus, which applies specifically to Silence Terlais. Near the nucleus is the ring for Gala. Gala's principles and actions must meet the Imperative to a particularly high degree. For example, Gala must have a sound and responsible government, not as an in-world requirement but as a personal requirement upon me. If a better form of government is available to Gala, it must have that form.

And a better form is available: meritocracy.

Just as science fiction stories are allowed a few great gimmicks for the sake of storytelling—warp drives, artificial gravity—so too is The Curious Tale allowed to showcase the emergence of something incredibly improbable from the statistical sea. It isn't an exaggeration, but a deliberate component of the story, that figures like Galavar and Silence are not simply the sort of luminaries who might arise once in a generation, or once in a century. They are the sort of luminaries who only arise a few times in the history of a civilization. And yet these two live in the same time and place, and are collaborating together! Almost as bogglingly, they are surrounded by several more people who themselves are luminaries of the once-in-a-century or even once-in-a-millennium caliber. If ever a meritocracy were to be viable, it would be in the midst of such awesome talent.

Galavar, his Guard, and several other high-ranking officials in Gala are the dream team of government. I also feel compelled to remind you that Galavar is from Ieik, Silence is from the Hesilan, DeLatia is from the Empire, and so on. Gala's first generation was a generation of carefully recruited migrants, the cream of the crop of the whole world. This does help chop a few leading zeroes off the probability that such a group of people could ever come together. By no means all of the zeroes, but some.

So, let's look at Gala's meritocratic top.

The Meretange

Meretange, which I'll write more about for this week's Wiki Wednesdays (and thus that link will only lead to a stub until then), is a concept that existed in Galavar's home village of Ieik long before the events of The Curious Tale. It effectively means "worthiness to possess," and literally means "to earn to touch," as derived from the Latin roots for "merit" and "touch." In Ieik, and later Gala, this concept is applied many different ways, but the one relevant here is the notion of worthiness to lead a government.

In this sense, "Meretange" is twofold: First, it refers to the Meretange itself, which is conceived sometimes as a physical force and sometimes as an abstract status of character, either of which describes a person's fundamental worthiness not as an animal but as a sapient individual. Second, the term refers to the Holder of the Meretange, the one who brings Meretange to the people and the world, and this is where Galavar comes in.

Sourros himself, the God of Logic and Wisdom, first introduced this concept to Galavar in the context of an imperative for government, doing so in a way that implied Galavar already possessed the merit to lead. Galavar, and later his cohort, then built a formal legal system of around this, by framing Galavar's strength in the Meretange as constituting him to be the "Meretange Individual," which is the instrument of Galavar's legal status of supreme authority in Gala. In essence, it is a political office, represented by the Yellow and Blue Scarf of the Meretange Individual, which is not merely symbolic but as a furcule physically contains something of the authority of the position.

This standard for determining merit was unique to Galavar: It noted the endorsement of the Ieikili, Galavar's people, and the support of several key individuals around Galavar. But, far and away, the key legal justification was the endorsement of Sourros. That, essentially, was the merit test. As Galavar himself put it, "The people consent, my comrades agree, and God has proclaimed it true."

Nevertheless, "God says so" was an unsatisfying justification for a people devoted to rationality and empirical evidence, and so the Galan Essential Articles—Gala's founding charter—attempted to present Sourros' endorsement as objectively as possible, by contextualizing it with the facts of Galavar's high education, world travels, ethical fitness, popular support, and ambitious plans, as well as the fact of Galavar's closest friends and colleagues being able to grant him perspective and exercise constraint upon him. Furthermore, the Essential Articles were written to explicitly state that only Galavar could be the Meretange Individual in this way, calling for a different, more difficult set of criteria to be met by his hypothetical successors to the position, and explicitly declaring that the position itself (and its vast plenary powers) would be eliminated upon completion of the Galan Conquest. The Articles also contain maintenance safeguards, both in the form of identifying a set of real-world performance indicators which must be continually met for Galavar to retain his eligibility ("on-the-job merit"), and a mechanism for removing Galavar from power.

Even all of this was insufficiently satisfying, however, and this lingering need for further justification was one of the impetuses that led to the formation of the assession system.


It is a fine-toothed distinction that "God says so" is different from "God has provided this test to determine whether it is so," yet it was distinction enough to persuade Galavar and many of those around him to establish the assession system to test an individual's fitness—not to become the Meretange Individual, but to ascend to the newly conceived political body known as the Guard of Galavar.

Assession is a real-world word, though obscure, and some people who saw it in the Prelude thought it was a misspelling of accession, which it is not. Assession, in the real world, means "sitting beside," and it carries that basic denotation over to The Curious Tale. Particular to its usage in the Galan meritocratic system, the word's insinuated metaphor of serving Galavar was known and appreciated, but the real reason for its selection was that it refers to what happens after a Guard Initiate completes the three divine tests that comprise the antagonistic battery of the assession process: That individual is then granted an in-person audience with Sourros, and is allowed to ask him any questions they like or otherwise converse with him.

The three divine tests of the assession evaluate a candidate's intelligence, in the grandest sense of the word, with intelligence being taken to indicate merit. The tests are so pure that they can even be described as descriptive rather than evaluative, as they will infallibly reveal pertinent information about the candidate. They are also potentially lethal; failure at any of the three tests means death, not by external punishment but by the conditions of the test itself.

Galavar himself was the first Galan to undertake the tests, though in his case not as a Guard Initiate but as the Meretange Presumptive. Arderesh Valeran and Lilit DeLatia followed soon after.

The thinking behind the assession system was that, by reserving the most important political powers for people who had completed an assession, the meritocracy would be considerably more sound.

Is Gala Fascist?

I mentioned fascism at the top of the article. Does Gala qualify? The short answer is no, Gala is not fascist, but the long answer is pretty interesting.

I've been concerned ever since the dawn of The Curious Tale that Gala would be compared to fascism, specifically to Nazi Germany. Galavar himself is a villainesque type who wants to take over the world because he is convinced that Gala has something superior to offer, and he is willing to use any amount of force to fulfill his ambition. His government is indisputably his to rule, and the only other major power-holders are his inner circle, the Guard—much like Hitler's system of himself at the top of everything with his top deputies serving as supreme powerbrokers in their respective jurisdictions. The initial stages of the Galan Conquest are reminiscent of the Blitzkrieg—something that, during the RPG, Lee pointed out to me. And of course there is the mindwashing of the people of Davoranj, which many readers will be apt to interpret as a form of genocide. (Certainly the unaffected Davoranjans did.)

Obviously there is no intent on my part to glorify fascism or the Nazis in any way. I even remember sitting in Odegaard Library in college studying Hitler specifically so that I could make sure not to inadvertently do something with Galavar that would insinuate a Hitler allusion.

When we speak of forms of government, there's quite a bit of nuance that tends to get lost in our classifications. Remember earlier, when I mentioned the example of the democratic monarchy of Soda Fountain? We tend to think of "democracy" and "monarchy" as being two instances in a list of choices of forms of government, but that's not how it works. There are actually multiple variables in play. One variable is the method of constituting the government. That's where terms like republic, democracy, oligarchy, autocracy, and meritocracy come in. Another variable is the distribution of powers in the government. That's where terms like monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and communism come in. A third variable is the government's policy toward the sovereignty of its constituents and its neighbors. That's where terms like federation, centralized government, and empire come in. "Fascism" concerns to the second variable: distribution of power within the government. It would certainly be theoretically possible, then, for Gala to be both a meritocracy and fascist.

Thankfully, for as troubling as some of the comparisons between Gala and Nazi Germany look at a glance, they break down under close scrutiny. Let's look at some of the details:

Fascism's core—it's literally baked right into the word—is about de-individualization, about mustering the collective power of the people to act as one monolith, and thereby to be strong. Gala, from its Ieikili pedigree, does have a collectivist aspect, but with a focus on wisdom over strength, and sans the de-individualizing part. Individualism in fact is an essential expectation of Galan cultural existence. People are actively discouraged from blindly conforming or following fads. The unity of the Galan people, when it exists, comes from a place of deliberate personal agency—something to which fascist governments have always said they aspire but at which they have necessarily always failed, due to the fact that fascism cannot allow the necessary education, civil liberty, and decentralization of socioeconomic power. (Incidentally, it will be interesting to look at how Gala, as its population grows through conquest and reproduction, will cope with no longer having a "cream of the crop" population.)

Fascism's far-right ideology is probably its most iconic distinction from Galan ideology. Fascism glorifies masculine violence, patriarchal gender norms, youth and youthful strength and exuberance, militarism, and patriotic obedience, and vilifies foreigners, every kind of minority, progressives and humanists, sensualists and hedonists, liberal democracies, communism, and elitism. And fascism promotes popular or hoodlum violence as a means of maintaining order through intimidation. The only clear overlaps here are that Gala is likewise big on solidarity, militaristic, and willing to use fear as a tool in the Conquest, and there is also some marginal overlap in that Gala, in its temperate Ieikili heritage, tends to discourage waste, indolence, and decadence, though sensualists like Silence (and she is by no means the only one) were always there to argue in favor of allowing space for such things, and succeeded in creating some measure of tolerance in society for them. Meanwhile the disparities are stark: Gala is extremely progressive, highly inclusive, celebrates elitism, and is staunchly egalitarian. (It is perhaps a conversation for another day how those last two items could go together in the same sentence.)

When it comes to the question of nationalism, fascism and Gala are perhaps surprisingly far apart. Despite its campaign to conquer the entire world, Gala does not do so on nationalistic grounds. In fact, a little piece of trivia that you might not have noticed is that, in the Prelude, there is no reference among Galan's themselves to Gala being an actual nation. That's because Gala doesn't consider itself a nation, but rather a supernational entity: more akin to the United Nations than the United States. Gala encompasses nations as member states, and the City of Sele could be considered a city-state for political purposes (though more appropriately it is closer to being a special administrative district like Washington, DC), but "Gala" as an entity does not function as though it had a national identity, and its people do not aspire to one. Gala's actual, full designation is The Aedes of Vardas Gala. No "republic." No "kingdom." Not even an "empire," though Gala's actions are certain imperialistic. Gala's conquest is strictly concerned with imposing certain rules and opportunities on the peoples of the world—not sticking it to "inferiors."

Critically, Gala has a very different attitude from what fascist governments generally do when it comes to managing public impressions of the leadership. Fascist governments are inevitably led by insecure people who fear losing control, and are often led by narcissists who fear losing attention. This, along with other factors, leads to cults of personality and even outright deification of the leader(s). Moreover, in a fascist society or any society with a strong central government, a significant segment of the public will (when conditions are fair or better) naturally gravitate toward personality cults and rabid loyalty. In Gala, the leadership has a keen awareness of this tendency and the associated risks, and actively works to prevent cults from forming, or from the people conceiving of their leaders as anything more than highly competent people.

Ultimately, while the organizational structure of the top of a fascist government does indeed bear much resemblance to that of Gala, the similarities largely end there, and I am confident in arguing that Gala is not only not fascist, but is not even remotely fascist.

A Meritorious Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed that little foray into my thoughts on democracy, meritocracy, fascism, and Gala.

Join me next weekend when I talk about marketing The Curious Tale.

Until then, may you find a way to make our real-life democracy a little bit healthier.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!