Helen Dale will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas on “Cultural Appropriation in Literature: Whose voice is it anyway?” on Sunday 14th October
Sunday 7 October was the 1-year anniversary of the publication of Book I of Kingdom of the Wicked. I should have done some sort of giveaway for it, but — me being me — I forgot and had to be reminded by Facebook.
Normally, this is the sort of anniversary authors enjoy, especially given most books have the shelf life of yoghurt and finish up remaindered inside a year. Kingdom of the Wicked has stayed popular, enjoying both good reviews and gratifying sales.
Something about the response to Book I has been troubling me for a while, though, and I’ve finally been able to put my finger on it this week. The reason I’ve been able to do so is because I watched a similar phenomenon unfold in response to the Sokal Squared hoax over the last fortnight.
Let me explain.
Briefly, Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so was well aware that pagan Rome in particular had very different underlying cultural values from those now present in the modern, industrialized west.
I wrote about this issue in the Australian and Spectator, and also in more wonkish outlets like Quillette. I even did a longread for the Cato Institute. I wanted to ease readers of my journalism and commentary — and also of my first novel, a fairly conventional work of literary fiction — into the world I’d created. This paragraph (extracted from the Cato Institute piece) sets out my goals:
This meant I tried to conceive of a world where a society unlike ours produces the ‘progress and growth’ template that all others then seek to follow. It is commonplace to point out that Roman civilization was polytheistic and animist, while ours is monotheistic but leavened by the Enlightenment; that Roman society was very martial, while Christianity has gifted us a tradition of religious and political pacifism; that Roman society had different views of sexual morality, marriage, and family structure. In short, I had to imagine an industrial revolution without monotheism.
The Roman Empire was not the modern European Union, despite occupying much of the same territory. Its peoples looked like us, and its rulers spoke a language most of us — especially French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian speakers — can learn relatively easily. They can seem like us, especially their flamboyant writers, lawyers, artists, generals, and politicians. But apart from the obvious differences (slavery, a taste for cruel entertainment, saucy interior design; you know the drill), they were culturally different all the way down.
Readers write to writers. If you ever become a successful novelist, you will have plenty of post. In days gone by, mine came by the good offices of Royal Mail and Australia Post. These days I still get a trickle in hard copy form, but most comes via Facebook, Twitter, and email. Thanks to the contents of my postbag, two things became readily apparent within 6 months of Book I’s publication. First, a lot of straight women wanted to shag one of my rather masculine Roman characters. “I’ve written 50 Shades for the smart set,” I thought. Not quite what I expected but hey I’m only the author and if they buy the book I get paid.
Secondly, a lot of people of both sexes wanted to live in the world I’d created.
I gave my Romans modern science and technology as part of trying to write a plausible alternative history. However, I also did it to head what I call “P. J. O’Rourke objections” off at the pass. “In general, life is better than it ever has been,” O’Rourke wrote in All the Trouble in the World. “If you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: dentistry.”
Roman morality. Our dentistry.
The idea that I’d created some sort of utopian vision for how we should run Western Civ would not go away, however. It even turned up in serious reviews from reputable outlets — not just in wistful letters to the author. People liked everything from the way I’d organized society to the role of the military to the system of governance to the stable, orderly rituals of Roman religion to the way the health service was run.
There were times when I wanted to shout did you not notice the authoritarianism? Did you not notice the eugenics? Did you not notice the medical experiments on POWs? Did you not notice the torture? (A few people — mainly professional reviewers — noticed the torture.)
Kingdom of the Wicked is not a dystopia — I don’t write them. The society it depicts “works”. It does, however, engage with the greatest threat to liberal democracy: the “authoritarian capitalism” of countries like China, Singapore, and Thailand. Those regimes have produced prosperity without liberty. Their very success suggests dentistry is enough.
The letters kept arriving and I kept pondering, occasionally wondering if I should have done the novelist’s version of an Oliver Stone film every thirty or so pages, he being fond of belting cinemagoers over the head with the message.
THIS, BY THE WAY, IS THE MESSAGE: TORTURE IS BAD AND INSTITUTIONALLY CORRUPTING. YES, ROMAN LAW REALLY DID ENCOURAGE NEW PARENTS TO KILL DISABLED INFANTS. NO, ROMANS DID NOT BELIEVE IN ‘EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW’, THAT WAS ONLY FOR CITIZENS. YES, THEY HAD A SURVEILLANCE STATE, GIVE THEM CCTV AND THEY’D HAVE MADE THE STASI LOOK LIKE RANK AMATEURS.
Maybe I’d made a mistake common among novelists: assuming readers are geniuses. The other common novelist’s mistake is assuming readers are idiots. Getting the balance right can be tricky. So I let the issue slide apart from having a bit of a grump about it at the Sydney launch of Book II of Kingdom of the Wicked in late June this year.
When the Sokal Squared hoax story broke, much mirth was occasioned at the expense of “grievance studies” journals. There was much wagon-circling by habitués of grievance-studies departments. There was associated with this much interesting and thoughtful commentary about publish-or-perish, peer review, fraudulent data, predatory academic publishers, institutional trust, and viewpoint diversity.
I contributed to the barrels of ink spilt and packets of pixels distributed re Sokal Squared in my home country’s national daily, The Australian. One of the things I discussed was the way Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian started with morally repellent or absurd conclusions and worked backwards, using existing academic literature in the field to make those conclusions seem reasonable and publishable.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the point forcefully enough, while other people — even many who thought Sokal Squared simply marvelous — didn’t make it at all. The response to the hoax has been sibling under the skin to the people who wrote loving paeans to my Romans-with-dentistry without noticing how vile they are.
Chaining people to the floor on the basis of their race or sex on the grounds they may learn something from it is not just intellectual drivel; it’s morally monstrous. Restraining men on leashes because you don’t like their sexuality is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. Being a victim (whether real, imagined, historical or whatever) does not buy you a right to behave badly or to do things that “privileged” people (as defined by you) aren’t allowed to do.
Somehow, we have ginned up a set of beliefs that, if normal people acted on them (i.e., people outside the academy and media), would lead to professional deregistration, social ostracism, even jail. In the gap between publication of Book I of Kingdom of the Wicked and the Sokal Squared hoax, I often noticed how violent antifa protesters didn’t seem to understand why they were getting chucked in the back of the paddy wagon along with violent white nationalist protestors.
Um, people, it’s the violence. In normal-world, you do not get a special pass because you’re from a ‘historically marginalized group’ or because your cause is just. Your loopy grievance studies lecturer may think you should, but it’s not going to happen. That’s how people find themselves in the cells talking to someone like me (“hello, I’m your duty lawyer”) while I hope they haven’t sung like birds to the coppers before I arrive.
There is a reason most world religions and philosophical systems have a “golden rule” or “silver rule”. And it doesn’t just mean treating alleged victims as you’d like to be treated if you were a victim — that way lays vigilantism. It also means treating alleged perpetrators as you’d like to be treated if you were a perpetrator. Victim status (however defined) doesn’t give you license to take revenge and use bogus scholarship as cover.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Bogossian have been completely frank about how they wanted the hoax papers they got through the peer-review system and the real papers they cited to get them there to be morally shocking, not merely funny. “Sometimes we just thought up a nutty or inhumane idea and ran with it,” they wrote in this magazine. It’s also clear from the peer reviewer advice they received on multiple papers — when told to “revise and resubmit” — they were encouraged to make them more unreasonable, more unethical, more ideological. Not less.
Maybe it’s not just the Romans who didn’t believe in “equal justice under law”. Maybe all those people out there who think it’s fine to scupper due process and let people behave badly on the basis of victim status — up to and including criminal offences — don’t believe in it either.
When lawyers say someone has “a broken moral compass” it’s based on the belief it can be fixed. That’s the core of every rehabilitation program I’ve ever seen. It argues we can be better, and people can be made better.
However, the striking loss of moral clarity exposed not only by Sokal Squared but also the reaction to it — as well as some of the correspondence I’ve received about Kingdom of the Wicked — speaks to something deeper and more troubling. We appear to be missing our moral compass. And before we can fix it, we first need to find it again.
The Battle of Ideas festival takes place at the Barbican in London on the 13th and 14th of October. For tickets and more information, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.