5th May 2010: On Troth (Loyalty) and Decisions

As a young student journalist in 1994, I was given the opportunity to interview the Australian artist Vali Myers. We talked about her life in New York, and at a wildlife sanctuary in Il Porto, Italy. “The Sicilian dons treated me better than the New York City art dealers who tried to rip my work off as cheap postcards,” she explained. A true witch, Myers encountered the authentic Sicilian Mafiosi. In contrast, most of us live with a third-hand cultural stereotype: Mario Puzo’s Godfather novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s film trilogy, which has shaped our understanding of loyalty, honour, and inter-group conflict.

 

The word ‘loyalty’ is traced to the Old English word treoth or Troth, which means ‘truth’ or ‘pledged faithfulness’. I first encountered Troth in the Gurdjieff Work and then in writings of American runologist Dr. Stephen Edred Flowers, who has observed that this is the Northern, Germanic equivalent of Puzo and Coppola’s ideal. Loyalty thus has a far deeper and richer context than popular stereotypes may portray, and has deep Indo-European roots.

 

Flowers makes several points about Troth in the context of a Traditionalist discussion. What follows is a personal interpretation, so go to the original sources. Flowers contends that the quality of Troth that guides personal conduct is often missing in contemporary civilisation, in that many activities can involve subtler forms of lying. In part, the Traditionalist critique observes that ‘outer seeming’ can become estranged from ‘inner being’.

 

Troth also suggests a type of knowledge, sense-making and perspective: the ability to discern truth from falsehood, out-of-context quoting and disinformation. Finally, Troth is observable — in people’s conduct, how their networks evolve over time, in their work or artifacts of their inner states, and in why people make decisions, not just the surface-level effects or what other people infer.

 

Practice-based disciplines use various methods to create the conditions of Troth: mentoring, professional associations, codes of ethics, and sensitivity to patterns of contexts and situations. The Media Alliance ethics guidelines for Australian journalists, the CFA Institute‘s framework for financial analysts, the CPA Australia rules for accountants, and research ethics guidelines in universities are detailed examples. Each of these attempts to remanifest the positive aspects of Traditionalist forms, such as (Medieval) guild structures or the transcultural transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. For individuals, these structures impose a check on potential ego-inflation, and guidance on how to navigate ethical dilemmas.

 

Historically, societies have granted these professions a social contract, because Troth implies a custodian role. It’s a little like how US government officials and armed forces swear allegiance to defend and protect the US Constitution as a document that manifests an ideal, rather ‘loyalty’ to an individual President or political administration. Thus, whilst Troth certainly involves being ‘true’ to family and friends, in its fullest sense it reaches out to something bigger and perhaps more abstract than the individual who has ‘bounded’ rationality. In the professional code of ethics suggested above, these may be the media, capital and investment markets, stakeholder reporting, and the integrity of medical and university research. In short, the Freedom given also implies a Demand: the willigness to act when circumstances require you to do so. The challenge is: what circumstances, how to act, with whom, and to what end?

 

Flowers understands this tension, so did Myers, as probably do Puzo and Coppola. Many people however do not, perhaps because they mistake principles for force or violence. Perhaps this is why there is so much debate and confusion about Machiavelli‘s book The Prince, which is really about loyalty, leadership and is credited, along with the Treaty of Westphalia, with conceptualising the sovereignty of nation-states. Although the popular image of him does not capture this, Machiavelli understood that strong-willed people who have their own visions and worldviews will inevitably clash and polarise, if their respective worldviews are not mutually appreciated or accomodated. The English magus Aleister Crowley and the journalist William T. Vollmann reached similar conclusions. Vollmann went so far as to write an extensive ‘moral calculus’ on this, that takes Machiavelli’s insights into a transcultural realm.

 

In writing The Prince as a guide for leaders on how to cultivate Troth or loyalty in their followers, Machiavelli built on Thucydides‘ insight that people are self-motivated by “fear, honour and interest”. Both Machiavelli and Thucydides foreshadowed the current interest in cognitive biases (anchoring, framing and positive illusions), and in particular, why high-valence issues often lead to escalated or polarised situations that were avoidable.

 

In contrast to this ‘classicist’ tragic awareness, popular stereotypes to problem-solving emphasise vengeful anger. The operatic finale of Coppola’s first Godfather film where Michael Corleone’s enemies are gunned down remains a powerful example. Asymmetric and guerrilla warfare is sometimes proposed as an alternative: David Ucko conveys how this really works. For a different view, consider the Camorra in journalist Roberto Saviano‘s book and Matteo Garrone‘s film Gomorrah. In both of these, and in Coppola’s two later films, the Mafiosi are in an alliance-style ‘balance of power’ situation more like what Thucydides and Machiavelli perceived, and which has dominated the international relations school of political realism. Rather than revenge, these works explore the role of political patronage for family and institutional survival. This is why, for example, even Lost‘s Smoke Monster or the embodiment of Evil is a patron who has allies, coherent and explainable goals, and a worldview.

 

Individuals choose their own Troth over false allegiances, collectivity, and the whims of political patrons. This may initially be branded as ‘disloyalty’ yet is observable, over time, if it is really just separate life orbits. Thucydides and Machiavelli understood that this individuation process may be part of what differentiates some emerging leaders from being followers. Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment reached other similar conclusions about the predictability of inter-group conflict: it’s a small world; the person you write-off today or feel angry with may have been helpful tomorrow, if the conflict and frustrations had just been handled differently. Sherif found two major reasons for this: the power of in-group views of a polarised out-group, and the escalation dynamics that entrench stances.

 

On an historical and societal scale, this individuation process is what partly what drove the Reformation and the founding of the United States. Do you really think that the Declaration of Independence authors were really that worried that King George III did the 18th century equivalent of blocking off their Facebook, Twitter and email account access? No: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” — and in doing so the US Founding Fathers brought an ideal into being. If they had stayed at home and worried about expressing a valid worldview then history would have turned out very differently. Alexander Hamilton: “See you at the next MeetUp Duel . . .”

 

How do we differentiate patrons, teachers, allies and collaborators who are worthy of Troth?

 

Quality of attention. Understanding the individuation process and its stages. Allowing people to awaken and cultivate their own Troth rather than demanding ‘loyalty’ for patronage. Knowing their own fallibility and weaknesses. Having others to keep them in-check and grounded. Being able to ‘agree to disagree’ with others, rather than blow-up and alienate people and institutions. Being able and willing to mend fences. And, occasionally, perhaps going offline and doing something that has a small, real impact in the world, like saving an animal or helping a total stranger.

Picking Up The Phone To Hear White Noise

Social-democrat economist John Quiggin fires an interesting salvo in the journalist-blogger debate: ethics and journalistic practices are perhaps the key distinction between the two.

Watching the hostility between ‘old media’ journalists and some Web 2.0 bloggers is often like watching Muzafer Sherif‘s Robbers Cave experiment. For bloggers, traditional journalists are constrained by objectivity, news values and institutional power, and traffic in biased op-ed columns and lightly rewritten corporate press releases. For journalists, bloggers don’t understand the norms and practices of the craft, don’t navigate the institutional shadow network, and vary greatly in the quality of their analytical insights. The two clashing stereotypes fuel a circular debate, which like Sherif’s experiment, may only change when a frame-changing exogenous threat is introduced.

For me, Quiggin makes three key points: (1) journalists have a socially recognised role to “pick up the phone” and talk to strangers; (2) journalists may select material from their interviews into a story and do not have to report everything; and (3) journalists have “a formal code of ethics and a set of informal conventions” to do this whilst bloggers do not. In doing so, I believe Quiggin adopts a middleground position similar to Terry Flew, Barry Saunders, Jason Wilson (from their YouDecide2007 project) and my own thoughts on citizen journalism, with some new insights.

My personal experience of Quiggin’s first point is that their role can empower journalists with Freedom to talk with anyone, and to view a situation through different, iterative stances. As I discovered during a 1994 student journalism stint and 1995 coverage of Noam Chomsky‘s Australian lecture tour, this is a great shock: in the right situation, people can tell you anything, and you can also become a a participant-observer who is now inside the unfolding events. It’s a little like Jim Carrey‘s character in the romantic comedy film Yes Man (2008): you ‘forget’ the self-limitations of yourself and act beyond normal social conventions.  As Quiggin observes, few people can ask questions of strangers and expect to get revelatory answers.

This approach reaches its zenith in New Journalism as a methodology and repertoire of practices in three ways. First, the journalist may create the “story” through a catalytic, influential effect on the external environment. Second, the journalist can become part of the “story” through capturing their subjective consciousness, and trying to capture a similar stance from the other participants through internal dialogue, scene reconstructions and other techniques. Third, the journalist has more freedom in convention, methodology and practice, such as using fiction techniques in a non-fiction profile. At its core, New Journalism fuses autoethnography, anthropology and acting, which are facets that a blog publishing system might not capture.

Quiggin’s second observation is a major flashpoint in the debate: how journalists hone a story and select the facts to report. Bloggers turn to critical media studies for many of their arguments: objective news values, op-ed columnists and other biased sources, institutional forces, and a conservative implementation of web publishing capabilities. In turn, journalists point to the chatter/noise factor in blogs: they may be alternatives to op-ed columnists and newswire press releases yet do not yet replace areas that are resource-heavy and have mature practices, notably investigative journalism. Bloggers counterargue they have more freedom to use nonlinear narrative styles and to publish the raw sources. Perhaps one of the lessons from YouDecide2007 and AssignmentZero was that the editorial decision process to hone and select material is more nuanced in practice than Twitter‘s role as a first responder in disasters and emergencies.

How do journalists navigate such decision processes? Journalists have discipline-based norms, practices and ethics as barometers. This acts as a check and balance within newsroom culture and its role only becomes clear in a go/no-go decision where the editor has to weigh up the competing interests of different stakeholders and the potential outcomes of publication. In contrast, many bloggers appear to be driven by normative-based anchors (Web 2.0 compared with institutional journalism) and commons-based advocacy (education, sustainability, future generations). But belief alone in noosphere politics and networks may not be enough to surmount the different manifestations of power. If bloggers want to influence the objective universe they can learn much from journalist ethics and strategic nonviolence.

Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.