By Theodore Hodge
In his magnificent book, “The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History”, Howard Bloom tells us about the Barbarian Principle in one of the chapters. In short, it warns those sitting at the top of the pecking about the danger of complacency. We are told that a position at the top of the pecking order is not permanent. Those sitting at the top should be wary of those at the bottom; those at the bottom are usually eyeing the top spot, usually with the ambition to occupy same when the opportunity is ripe.
Here is a marvelous quotation from the book: “Dominant beasts remain vigilant. But a strange thing happens at the pecking order’s apogee. The dominant super-organism sometimes goes to sleep. It falls complacently into a fatal trap, assuming that its high position is God-given, that its fortunate lot in life will last forever; that its lofty status is carved in stone. It forgets that any pecking order is a temporary thing and no longer remembers just how miserable life can be at the bottom. The results are often an unpleasant surprise.”
Did you know that Rome was torn apart by people referred to as barbarians? They were considered contemptible creatures by well-cultured citizens. Let’s lift another quotation from the book: “The barbarians didn’t shave. They wore dirty clothes. They were almost always drunk. Their living standard was one stop above that of a mule. Their technology was laughable. They usually couldn’t read and write and they certainly had no culture. What could these smelly primitives do? They could fight.”
At one point in history, Egypt was noted as a superpower. It towered over its neighbors and enjoyed a great deal of opulence and prestige. But there was a group of people called the Hyksos and when the right time came for them to launch an attack against the mighty Egyptians, they succeeded with ease. The author describes them this way: “They were cultural nobodies, contemptible yahoos. Their life-style was fourth-rate. Aside from their lack of couth, they had three distinguishing characteristics --- they were excellent horsemen, the reveled in violence, and they had a knack for inventing military hardware.”
What had led to the defeat of the Egyptians could be summed up in one word: OVERCONFIDENCE. They overlooked the seemingly unsophisticated barbarians. They barbarians beat them and took their lunch.
Then there were the Babylonians. They had run over all the entities in their way in establishing themselves as the superpower of the day; their only concerns were the other major powers in their sphere; the Assyrians and the Medes. The Babylonian territory was said to stretch for a thousand miles from the Persian Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. The Babylonian military machine was a wonder to behold.
While the Babylonians sat at the zenith of power and prestige, while they worried about other major powers, up crept some hitherto- nobodies --- insignificant creatures they were and they were called the Persians. Our author once again puts it this way: “The Persians were unlettered and uncouth. But they loved a good fight. It wasn’t long before the hitherto- unknown mob overwhelmed the Assyrians and the Medes, Babylon’s two rival superpowers. Then the Persians turned on the isolated Babylonians and won.”
But the story continues in a fascinating way: “Like the Babylonians before them, the Persians were blind to the barbarians and expected trouble only from nations celebrated for military might. They forgot that the real danger often comes from a people everyone has totally dismissed. So the great Persian leader, Darius, didn’t bother with the scarcely civilized yokels who squabbled interminably on a bunch of islands and rocky coasts to the west and who called themselves the Greeks.”
The Greeks, the Athenians to be more exact, had their eyes on the top rung of the pecking order. They wanted to ascend and sit at the top of it --- just like others before them had done. They got their chance. They provoked a fight with the Persians. Again, our author’s words:
“But the barbarians the Persians considered beneath contempt won the war. In the years before the first the first major Persian-Greek war, when he was informed that the burning of Sardis had been pulled off by a landing party of Athenians, the exasperated Persian emperor Darius had been forced to ask, “Who are the Athenians? Now, presumably, he knew.”
One hundred and fifty years later, a Greek whom even his fellow Greeks called a barbarian would conquer the entire Persian Empire. His name was Alexander the Great. Yes, Alexander the Great had been considered a barbarian by the Greek upper-class. One has to wonder about all these barbarians.
Let’s move forward into time. In 1870, when the French “rated by every arm-chair general as the mightiest military force on the Continent’ locked horns with an upstart power, the French lost. According to the story, “Its army was chopped up like ground round. Its glorious capital, Paris, faced the humiliation of a foreign army marching down its streets. The upstart nation that had brought France to its knees was Germany.
England was once the most dominating country in the world, but after two world wars, and after the smoke cleared, two countries described as “backward nations of Johnny-come-latelies” ended up at the top of the pecking order. The two countries were the United States and Russia --- two countries whose inhabitants had usually been regarded as “just one small step above the primitive.”
Howard Bloom ends his seminal narrative with a crucial lesson: “Never forget the pecking order’s surprises. Today’s superpower is tomorrow’s conquered state. Yesterday’s overlooked mob is often the ruler of tomorrow. Never underestimate the Third World. Never be complacent about barbarians.
So there is the story about nations --- how nations climb to the apex of the pecking order at the expense of weaker and more disorganized nations, only to lose their coveted positions through complacency and carelessness. It has happened so many times in history, the trend cannot be denied. But does this phenomenon have any significance within societies? Can one group of people climb at the top of a national pecking order and remain there until brought down by a lesser regarded group through complacency? The answer is an obvious yes.
Let’s take the case of Liberia. For close to a century and a half, one small elite group dominated the halls of power and government, at the expense of the vast majority, the so-called country people. In 1980, complacent at the top and not even paying attention to the indigenous masses (let’s liken them to the barbarians of old), the so-called cultured and civilized elite was overwhelmed by the barbarians. They came crushing down to the ground after their fragile house had crumbled under its own weight.
Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings. The barbarians of Liberia were never a homogenous group, rather a splinter of groups with one thing uniting them in commonality: Misery. The Bassa, Krahn, Gio, Grebo, Kru, Kpelle, Lorma and all the other tribes forming the Liberian national landscape did not have anything in common except their common oppression by the ruling elite; they were united in misery. Subconsciously, they perceived themselves as being the ‘other’ in their own country, but they made no conscious efforts to form workable coalitions or political alliances. When the time came and they planned and executed a coup d’état, they came to the realization that they had no clearly defined goals; they had not defined the ‘other’. They fell in disarray and splintered even further and worked against themselves.
Now seemingly, that ruling elite that was overthrown is on the verge of a big comeback. All indications are that the present administration is trying to restore the ‘old glory’ and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is leading that not-so-quiet revolution of the elite. Under her administration, she has strengthened the old guard. She has built coalitions with the splintered barbarians and the barbarians are now even more disunited as they were in 1980 when their so-called revolution took shape.
So what’s the lesson here? History has shown that barbarians can unite against the elite and fight them successfully and topple them from their position of comfort. In the case of Liberia, it was a false alarm; there was no revolution. Until the barbarians can unite, they stand no chance against the sophisticated elite. The elite is carefully planning and plotting to maintain the status quo while the barbarians remain complacent.
There is still time to change the situation in Liberia for the better of the majority. But nothing can be taken for granted. It becomes the responsibility of an oppressed people to throw off the yokes and unshackle themselves. Until Liberians unite against the old order, we are doomed to be oppressed. Only this time the worst is about to happen: We will be willing subjects to the oppression because we refuse to answer the call to freedom. Barbarians of Liberia, are we willing to unite? It’s either unite now or live in perpetual subjugation.
Author’s note: The term ‘barbarian’, as applied in the case of Liberia is used in a glorified way. Perhaps it is fair to say it is used in a metaphorical or even a sarcastic sense. Throughout Liberia’s history, the indigenous people of Liberia have been referred to as “country” people. Country, as used in this sense is a derogatory term meaning uncivilized, uncultured, uncouth… Additionally, the ‘country’ people have been referred to as pagans and heathens. So is it a stretch to sarcastically embrace the word barbarian? I don’t think so.
Author: Theodore Hodge can be reached at email@example.com