Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Tale of the Jackdaw

Of the five branches of philosophy, the fifth is Aesthetics. Its surface question is “What is beauty?” Dig a bit deeper and the questions become ones like “What is quality?” and “Why do we like whatever we like?”

My theory is that we are drawn to things that resonate with us. This has more to do with how we perceive it and how we perceive ourselves in relation to it with little to do with the thing itself.  With this is mind, ask yourself dear reader, who is your favourite Assassin and why?

My favourite is Edward  Kenway. This is not to say that he is the best or ideal assassin. That position is reserved for the likes of Altair or Ezio (though I'm on team Ezio with this one). For the entirety of the game Black Flag Kenway isn't even an assassin. At the end he says that he has issues to sort out and that he would join the brotherhood when they are done, which he does.  I like Kenway because I identify with his story about a Jackdaw trying to be an Eagle. Ezio is noble, wise, and has clarity of purpose. He is the quintessential Eagle.  Edward Kenway is not.

In animal lore, the Jackdaw is equated with thievery and both craftiness and foolishness, he's too clever for his own good. He is the kind of person who does things the quick and easy way, is smart enough to succeed to a point, but is scrambling to hold that position and never feels truly worthy of it because he feels he did not earn it.  Living in constant fear of being caught out for the fraud he believes himself to be.

As Mary Read tells him, "No one honest has an easy life, Edward. It's aching for one that causes the most pain."  Her point here is that people have what they have because they sacrificed freedom and ease to get it. Those unwilling to make the same sacrifices see the "easy life" these others seem to have and want it for themselves. They ache for the benefits but do not want to pay the cost.

Aristotle called pride the crown of virtues. In other words, pride is the reward for living a life of positive habits. The opposite is arrogance where someone expects the benefits of virtue and pride but lack the works to back it. .  An arrogant person is the kind who demands respect but has done nothing deserving respect.  Rather than fullness, for the arrogant there is only emptiness

Imagine a cup and no matter how much you pour into it the cup never fills. The trick is that to everyone watching the cup is overflowing and you're making a mess.  Doc Holiday in the film Tombstone describes his nemesis, Johnny Ringo, this way. "A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. "  Edward Kenway suffers the same affliction. He can never steal enough or become renowned enough to bolster his sense of self-worth.  He's never good enough in his eyes despite his acquired wealth and fame.  He is contemptuous of people of accomplishment, status, and rank because he believes that he deserves it more than they do.

Of course this is fiction, but in real life it's the same principle -- without the violence. We each have an idea of ourselves that we carry around with us. Commonly called the self-image. The question is whether this image is consistent with reality or not. A person who sees their cup as empty is constantly looking to fill it, but since the problem is one of perception not abundance, enough is never enough.  Such people may have lives filled with money, power, respect, love and be the envy of others, but they lack the capacity to accept the fact that they have these things and therefore constantly strive for them.

Kenway was born to a poor family working the farm, but he always knew that he was meant for more. It was almost as though he saw the bigger picture while his family and neighbours saw only pixels.  Some people are happy with the world they are given while others see and therefore want more.  This is often the case with heroes in stories.  They are set apart from the other characters because they see, or at least sense, a world beyond the mundane drudgeries of life.

The first example of Kenway reaching above his allotted station in life is made evident in the novelisation of the game to explain his motivations for leaving Caroline to make his fortunes as a privateer.  He had won the heart of most beautiful woman in the area but her family was rich. Of course her parents disapproved of her marrying beneath herself and Edward came to resent the two of them living in a shack on his parent’s farm. Caroline was okay with this because she loved Edward, but he couldn’t live with himself.  He needed to prove that he was better to Caroline, to her family, and to his neighbours.  He needed to become rich.

Money is useless. It's just bits of metal, paper, or bytes. So the pursuit of money is also useless. But people do not pursue wealth for the money. They pursue what the money represents. For Edward, the pursuit of wealth was the pursuit of love, self-worth, and freedom.

It's been said that the people who say "money isn’t everything" are people who have it. They take money for granted and do not appreciate that having money enables all the great things that "money can’t buy", like love, self-worth, and freedom.  However, St. Columba wrote that the man who is not satisfied with little will not be satisfied by more. Money enables what is already there. It's like how Dr. Erskine describes the super soldier serum in the film Captain America. It “amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse.”  This is true for all forms of power.

For Edward Kenway becoming rich drove him to want to become richer, possessed of the "one last big score" mentality. He became so obsessed with acquiring the means to his end that he forgets his end purpose of returning to Caroline.   He reaches rock bottom with the death of Mary Read while in prison and the grief driven drunken binge that followed.  It is during this haze that he envisions his nemesis, Woodes Rogers, taunting him with Aesop's tale of the jackdaw.

"Aesop once wrote of an eagle, soaring high above a shepherd's field that swooped down on powerful wings to seize a grazing lamb and carry it off to her nest. Flying close by, a jackdaw saw the deed, and it filled his head with the idea that he too was just as strong and capable. So with a great flapping and rustling of feathers, the jackdaw came down swiftly and clutched at the coat of a large ram. But when he tried to fly away, he found he could not lift the animal, for his size and strength were not up to the task. And even as the jackdaw struggled, the ram hardly noticed he was there. Nearby, just across the field, the shepherd saw the fluttering bird and was quite amused. Running up, he captured the jackdaw and clipped its wings. That evening he gave the jackdaw to his children as a gift. "What an odd little bird this is, father!" they laughed and shouted. "What do you call him?" "This is a jackdaw," the father said. "But if you should ask him, he would claim to be an eagle."

This is the central point of the story.  Edward Kenway is the jackdaw.  He coveted the positions of the rich in his neighbourhood growing-up and believed that money would make him noble.  He dresses-up in the robes of an Assassin, but has not earned the right to do so.  He pretends to be Assassins throughout the story and granted he has the innate skills to pull it off, but he is no Assassin.  When he fails he sees himself as the fraud he is, but in doing so he transforms.

For years I've been rushing around, taking whatever I fancied, not giving a tinker's curse for those I hurt. Yet here I am... with riches and reputation, feeling no wiser than when I left home. Yet when I turn around, and look at the course I've run... there's not a man or woman that I love left standing beside me.

It may seem a trite lesson. "I sought riches but all I needed was love", but it's deeper than that.  It is about the cup that never fills, like some tartarusian torture, and a lesson in how to fill it.  If you aspire to greatness, to be the hero or the Assassin, or to be loved and respected, it is not enough to pursue to benefits or trappings that you associate with these things.  Dressing like a doctor does not make you one.  Rather you must pursue to virtues that result in these benefits.  If you want wealth, then develop positive work habits and an eye to spot opportunity.  If you want love from others, then learn to respect their thoughts, feelings, needs, and space instead of assuming that yours somehow trump theirs.

This is why Edward Kenway is my favourite Assassin.  Not because he is the best but because his journey is profound and relatable.  My family was never hung in a Florentine piazza, or my village burned, and I was certainly not raised on a “farm” to become an Assassin, but I have aspired to greatness with as little effort or sacrifice as possible.  I have felt like a fraud hoping no one notices.  I have asked myself, “if you’re so smart then why aren’t you successful?”  And I have felt that I was not good enough as a man for the woman I was with at the time.  I think this is true for a lot of people.  This is what makes Edward Kenway’s story, the Tale of the jackdaw, our story.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Revolutions of Assassin's Creed

Like thousands of others, I watched the trailer for the new Assassin’s Creed game Syndicate soon after it was made public.  We now finally have a Victorian Assassin, well two actually, the Frye twins Jacob and Evie.  For those too involved in the spirit of the trailer here is Jacob’s introduction to the game:

It’s a bloody marvellous time to be alive, an age of invention, so many clever blokes dreaming up impossible machines sorting away more gold than Queen Victoria herself.  But none of those shillings ever makes it into the pockets of the poor devils whose blood is spilt building this glorious empire.  The working class sleeping walks through life unaware of the machine that drives them. Let's wake them up then, shall we?

At first I thought he might be referring to the Chartist Movement, a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1858, but the game is set in 1868.  So it is a bit late.  One thing for certain is the talk of revolution, something that is quickly becoming a common feature in advertising the Assassin’s Creed games. To understand the scope of what I am referring to, here are the trailers. 

Rise Trailer


Defy Trailer

Freedom Cry


The common theme is revolution and fighting for the people, the powerless against the powerful.  I get excited at the thought of revolution, like at the end of Les Miserable standing on the barricade.  Perhaps that is part of the reason I get excited about Assassin’s Creed. There’s this vicarious involvement that video games allow. You can “be” the character leading his band of brothers against tyranny.  I assume that like me others get so pumped-up being this person and in this world that you want to go out into the real world and do something with all that energy only to step through your front  door and find yourself sorely disappointed by the real world.

Revolution is literally in the DNA of Assassin’s Creed.  In the Western storytelling tradition, Assassin’s Creed traces its origins to the historical Romances of Sir Walter Scott, particular another hooded member of a rag-tag brotherhood of outsiders fighting for the people and against the injustices of the rich and powerful.  Of course I am referring to Robin Hood.

As mentioned in previous articles, modern Middle-Eastern scholars are swaying towards the notion that the origin of the word assassin is asasiyun, meaning "those faithful to the foundation", however the old belief that the word is derived from hashishin is still held by the general public.  The word hashashin means hashish user, but the connotation is an outcast or outsider. This is the interpretation used by Ra's al ghul in the television series Arrow when he tells Oliver Queen that the word assassin referred to people outside of society.  This also connects back to Robin Hood.  The term outlaw originally referred to someone punished for a crime by being placed outside of the protection of the law – literally an out-law.  So in theory, someone could legally murder an outlaw and it not be considered a crime.  Outlaw, outcast, or hashishin, it’s all the same thing.

The Assassin’s Creed series never provides their definitive etymology, but it's safe to say the outcast theory plays a part. The Assassins are often cast as outside of society due to the secret knowledge they possess and being aligned with the poor, simple, every day folk against the powers that be as represented by the Templars.  This fits Assassin’s Creed's Romantic Robin Hood heritage of the plucky outsiders -- or outlaws if you please -- fighting the evil rich people.

This Robin Hood  trope of the plucky, heroic revolutionaries fighting for the freedom of the common man against the injustices of an evil government, corporation, or, in the case of Assassin's  Creed, a powerful  secret society  pulling the strings behind the scenes, is one of the most common in modern narrative  fiction. It’s right up there with the boy meets girl trope found in almost every rom-com.

I’m not the only one who feels this trope. Revolution sells. Advertisers use revolution to promote their products. Only today I walked past a shoe store with a poster in the window asking, "What do you stand for?"  Well, apparently if you wear these shoes you can feel like a rebel standing for your principles fighting the system and “the man”.  But what exactly is “the system” and who is the man?

The System

Understanding the so-called system begins with recognising the human condition. All living organisms must produce to survive. Production is the result of the combination of time, energy, skill, and will.  A tiger is engaging his production when hunting and a gazelle when it's grazing. For humans, production is more complicated. We require food and also shelter and clothing to survive. This need is the foundation of all human society and production, the application of human time, energy, skill, and will is the means to this end. The result of human production is the entirety of the man-made Artificial Reality in which we reside.

Human production is possibly the most powerful resource on the planet. It has the power to change reality itself. As with any resource, especially one this powerful, people wish to harness it for their own purposes and to manage it. Others fear how it is used, so they attempt to control how individuals and groups of individuals use their production. In response, others resist these attempts by others to own, manage, or control their production.

Every human being is born with time, energy, will, and the capacity to develop skills. To be free is to own your production. To be unfree, to be a slave, is to have another claim ownership of your production -- your time, energy, skill, and will.

But freedom is nothing without the power to act on that freedom. Power is the means by which we work our will in the world, to exercise our freedom, so there is no point to freedom without the means to act on that freedom?  According to this theory, the more power you have the freer you are.

Of all the powers that be, the most versatile and reliable is money. Suppose you have a craving for a double shot latte. You have the freedom to get it but do you have the power to get it?  What means must be employed?  Do you have a car or bus fare to get to Starbucks or can you walk? Once you get there do you have the money to buy it or can you charm someone to buy it for you? Maybe you have a friend working there who can give you one for free.  For something as simple as getting a cup of coffee we must employ the range of powers at our disposal, most of which we take for granted. Of all these forms of power the most reliable is cold hard cash.

Money is power and the more power you have the more means at your disposal to exercise your will in the world -- your freedom.  So how do we get money? Ironically, we get money by selling our freedom.

We trade our production (our freedom) to another person in exchange for money, a symbolic representation of production. With money, we do not have to trade our production to buy milk. Imagine if we had to do chores at the local shop to make purchases.

So how much is a person's production worth? A thing, any thing, is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. If someone wanted to pay a high salary to someone to sweep floors, then janitors would be rich. This is why it's called the job market. Not because people are shopping for jobs.  It's the other way around.  Employers are shopping for employees and deciding their value -- or at least how much they are willing to pay for them.

When making purchases consumers look for "value for money" meaning that they want the best and most at as little cost as possible. The seller is looking for the maximum return on his investment. If he can buy widgets cheap and sell them at ten times what he paid for them, then he's one happy camper.

In the job market you might think that the employer is analogous to the seller, but you would be wrong. He’s the consumer.  We sell our production (freedom) and we want a maximum return on our investment.  This means getting as much money as possible costing as little freedom as possible -- high pay, low hours, and little work is the ideal.

The employer wants value for money. His ideal is paying as little as possible for another  person's  production and squeezing as much labour as possible  from the employees, or as they say in retail "if you've  got time to lean; you've  got  time to clean".  If an employee is late or lazy then the employer is not getting his money’s worth.  If the employee is costing the employer a certain amount of money but is not making the employer enough money to cover the wages, then the employer is not getting his money’s worth.

One of the comparisons made between the American North and South during the period before and after the Civil War was that while the South owned slaves, free production, the owner had to pay for the slaves upkeep in food, shelter, clothing, and, if the master was kind, medical care. Whereas in the North, factory workers were underpaid and still had to pay for their own upkeep. The argument was that it was sometimes better to be a slave in the South than a factory worker in the North.

The saying goes that we all have a boss.  From the lowly minimum wage employee, to their boss, to the corporate executives, they all have bosses; they all want to get paid; and they all want to keep getting paid and will do whatever they were hired to do to ensure that.  This universal need to sell our production for money and the employee/employer relationship is "the system" and it will continue to exist as long as people need food, shelter, clothing, and entertainment.

In this eternal dynamic of employee and employer there is a third outside party with no metaphysical connection with the other two. The worker needs a boss and a boss needs a worker, but neither needs government.

Government however needs both. Labour (the people) who empower government with votes, support, and even through their apathy and acceptance. Management empowers government with money.  This is provided either directly through taxes, donations, bribes, or favours, or indirectly through the wages paid to employees who then pay a portion of these wages to government through taxation.

So the people give government social power and companies give it monetary power. In exchange the government grants favours writ in legislation and enforced with police, courts, prisons, and military. Whoever controls the government with its monopoly on force controls the production of a nation.

This is the foundation of revolution -- all revolutions.  The people fight for freedom -- the ownership of their production and a maximum return on their invested freedom. When they don't get it they say they are being exploited, which is just a fancy way of saying used. When they fight business it’s for higher wages and more benefits. When they fight government they are resisting the force of government control their lives. 

Here's an interesting side-thought, if a person trades one months production (freedom) for £1,000 and this person is then taxed £1,000 per year, then he has spent one month of the years as a slave to government.  This is just an example.  It is estimated that the average person works three to four months for government. Why do they do it?  Is it a sense of civic duty or because men with guns will arrest them and put them in jail if they don't?

Joining the Revolution

Ultimately, everyone wants to control this exclusive power of force wielded by government.  Of the recent trailers for Assassin’s Creed, you may have noticed the absence of Unity in the above showcase.  Strange that the trailer for the game set during the French Revolution is the least revolutionary.  Instead there is Lord’s cover of the Tears For Fears song, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”.  This is true.  Everyone does want to rule the world, perhaps not directly but everyone has an opinion of how the world should be.  They are more than happy to tell you what should or should not be a law. They often forget that laws are backed by the force of government, so when you want something to be illegal, ask yourself if you are happy for government to use force to make someone act as you choose.

Business leaders and politicians are not some alien species, unless you believe David Icke. They are people with families, children, hopes, dreams, and feelings. The difference is that they have power and others do not and people with power work their will in the world.  Since time immemorial people have talked about what they would do or what should be done to make their society better -- whatever their idea of "better" might be. The difference between them and the people with power is that the powerful can actually do something about it. In the words of Larens Prins in Black Flag, "You live in the world but you cannot make it move.” The powerful can and do.

Someone with monetary power can simply buy what they need to change the world, anything from manpower, to media coverage, to politicians. Revolutionaries have social power, the power of the people -- the power of numbers.  But this is as unstable a foundation as monetary power is stable.

Universities are traditionally starting points for revolution. This is not because of the ideas that students encounter, though that does play a part. Students are not fully independent from their parents and have no dependents. This affords them the luxury of being revolutionaries. It's hard to join the cause if you have to maintain your job and provide for a family. At best the revolution is a past time or volunteer work on the side.  You show up for the rally and then get the kids their dinner. Even the most dedicated volunteers have to sustain their lifestyle.

Another problem with people power is that there are as many individual purposes as there are individuals and these purposes can change on a whim. Today the public is on your side but tomorrow they have moved on to something else and you stand alone on the barricade.

Since the source of revolutionary power is social power, then a political rally or protest is a display of that power. It is the equivalent of brandishing a gun at the powers that be. But what if the powers are not threatened? What if they know that all they have to do is wait it out and the threat will peacefully disperse and return to feed the kids? This is what happened with the Iraq War protests, possibly the largest mass protest the world has even seen and it accomplished nothing.

A more violent form a protest involves looting. This is hardly the grand ideological movement that revolutionaries want. It is as simple as an event creating opportunities for people to steal and later justifying it as protest.  This gets media attention, but still nothing changes.  It is not revolution.

The problem in converting the revolutionary trope from fiction to real life is the consideration of money. For the hero to act he must have the means to act, the power to act, and most of the time this means money. In real life our range of action is limited by the amount of money at our disposal, but this is never a problem suffered by fictional characters unless it pertains to the plot. Even in sitcoms supposedly poor characters can afford to leave their jobs and fly across America for another character’s wedding at a moment's notice and no matter menial their job they all have nice homes.

Like most heroes and primary characters, the Assassins have money at their disposal for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. Imagine if Connor said, "Sorry Achilles, I can make the assassination of the evil Templar because I have work till six".  The Assassins primary income seems to derive from treasure chests sitting in plain sight that no one ever thinks to break open, real estate development, and international trade. Either way, the Assassins are not poor. Ezio was a noble. Connor had access to Achilles resources.  Aveline was a wealthy merchant. Edward started off poor but ended rich due to his lucrative pirating exploits.

So where does this leave our real world Assassins lacking in monetary power or people power?  I think it is all about attitude – an individual’s orientation to reality.  This orientation is determined by our beliefs and values.  I would define myself as having a revolutionary attitude because I do not like my actions dictated by laws or policies made-up by people that I do not know and do not know me.  I agree with Douglas Bader who wrote, “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”.  With that in mind, I do not take kindly to fools who follow and enforce the rules concocted by other fools who attained positions of power over me by following other rules.

What makes the way of the Assassin revolutionary is the realization that everything is permitted so your rules only have as much power over me as you are able to enforce.  This means I will follow your rules for only one of two reasons.  Either I agree with them or I am not willing to risk the consequences of disobedience.  I will not smoke in a public place because I do not wish to annoy people and not because it’s against the law.  I will smoke in a deserted public place.  I will pay taxes because I do not want to go to jail, but will not if I could safely avoid it.

There have always been schemers and planners.  Those people with an overwhelming sense of how things should be and the arrogance to believe they are exclusively right and that this gives them the right to force their will on others.  If these people have a small amount of power it’s the asshole in the office.  If these people have a lot of power it’s the asshole in the corporate office, government, or the community action group.  What’s new is their ability to control and monitor you and this begs the question of what you can or will do in response.

Assassin’s Creed is for the outlaws, the outcasts, the hashishin, the revolutionaries.  With one snikt of the hidden blade the powerful fall to the powerless.  In some ways it’s a revenge fantasy vicariously played out.  The dark side of Assassin’s Creed is this message that of all the forms of power material power may be the most reliable and constant, social power may be dramatic yet fickle, but the one that trumps them all is physical power.  Money will not save you from the hidden blade and the crowd becomes your disadvantage.

Although the Assassin’s Creed trailers sell revolution, in the Rise and Defy trailers the assassins stand apart only making an appearance at the end.  He is not their leader.  He is not their organiser.  He is not part of their revolution.  However, it is implied that he is willing to take action as needed.  This is played out in the games themselves where the revolution serves only as a backdrop.  So perhaps the real message is not one of revolution but an understanding that events are currents that pull us along and all that we can control is how we choose respond to them.   Do we obey or do we rise and defy?