The Essay Master
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Mar 27 2013, 05:50 AM
Here's that post I promised, which builds on ideas I previously put forth elsewhere and have decided to expand on.
I'd like to see what the rest of you think of them. As odd as it might sound, in considering how an "ideal" Cardassian society might work - that is, one that isn't oppressive and dysfunctional like Central Command and the modern Union - I find myself thinking of elephants (in part because I've been reading about them). Elephants, of course, are among the most human-like (and thus Cardassian-like
) of animals - very arguably sapient, with a lifespan and growth rate very similar to our own. Given what we hear about Cardassian psychology - and keeping in mind the great work that some of the forum's members have already done in that regard, arguing for a natural hierarchal instinct in Cardassians and exploring the consequences - I think elephants are a useful place to start in considering how Cardassian societies "should" work.
Elephants are very hierarchal - both in the mainstream herds consisting of females and offspring, and in the looser male groupings that form outside of these. Elephants are also generally peaceful, though; bullying isn't tolerated in the herd, with the penalty for bullying being (or so I've read) a form of "time out" that elephants find distressing, as they're highly social creatures who depend on contact with others. Elephant calves are used to a highly supportive environment, apparently making them rather psychologically vulnerable when they aren't getting one. Apparently, keepers raising orphaned elephants know that when you discipline an elephant or "tell it off", it's important to later show some one-on-one affection, so the calf knows it was being reprimanded for a misdemeanour and not being told it isn't cared for. Apparently, the herd is very nurturing and mutually supportive while having clear hierarchies and definite leaders; ultimate authority of course belonging to the matriarch, who is treated with tremendous respect for her experience and leadership skills.
What's interesting is that this combination of hierarchy and support is also, apparently, now being observed in male elephants, which of course leave the herd to live independently upon reaching late adolescence. I was reading recently about bonding in adult male elephants, which has historically been less understood, since following the dynamics of the permanent female herd is of course a lot easier. Apparently, male elephant society is now thought to be a lot more complex than used to be believed. Male elephants, like many if not most male animals, are competitive among themselves, seeking always to be the "top dog". However, they're also usually rather peaceful among themselves, always aware of their "rightful" place. While males in musth buck the rules and challenge more established elephants for status (and usually succeed, since no-one wants to stand in the way of a guy in musth - some scientists apparently think the whole point of musth is to encourage genetic diversity by letting a population cycle through "alpha" males), relationships between males in a community are usually smooth and amicable, *because* everyone knows their place in terms of the hierarchy, and knows where they stand in relation to everyone else. Relationships among members of both sexes, then, are supportive and generally healthy, even where males have a natural instinct for seeking dominant positions within a hierarchy (remind you of anyone
? ). Young males apparently deliberately seek out elder males for support just as females follow their elder relatives and everyone follows the matriarch.
The matriarch leads her herd to water, etc, and the herd very often has her memory and guidance to thank for its prosperity. The idea that "an elephant never forgets" probably has its basis in this (among other traits). When the matriarch dies, it's the most vulnerable time for a herd, and some apparently don't recover from the blow. Many human cultures, of course, revere the elderly for their survival experience and memory; Cardassians, seemingly evolved for an arid environment, might be particularly inclined to place emphasis on the disciplined mind and great memory of the elders. They are both a quasi-gerontocratic people and a race renowned for mental discipline, after all.
I think Cardassians could be considered akin to elephants; a combination of both elephant sexes. Perhaps they too naturally have (or seek) an instinctive understanding of where they stand in relation to everyone else. Their society, when functional, might be stable and supportive (nurturing of children) because of that inherent respect for hierarchy. Perhaps when Jellico compared them to wolves, he should have compared them to elephants. Like male elephants, Cardassians are competitive and seek dominance within a social hierarchy; Jellico claims so, and what we've seen suggests to me that in this he's accurate. But as male elephants show, desire to seek a dominant position doesn't necessarily lead to anarchy or a lack of mutual regard. in fact, such a people would likely have a cultural and moral system in place with the express purpose of negating any excesses. Cardassians are also like female elephants, in that they form permanent family groups and work with an eye towards long-term community, placing value on the wisdom of their leaders,
It occurs to me that in the novels, the Oralian Way makes the comparison even stronger. As Astraea leads the people by serving as a vessel for the wisdom of Oralius, it seems to me that this is almost symbolic of how a leader is able to access memory, draw from the pool of experience, and guide the group in matters both practical and emotional. If Cardassians are elephants, then in the old days of the Oralian leadership...well, Astraea was the matriarch, wasn't she? I don't know whether this is coincidence, but there's a really interesting bit in "A Stitch In Time" where a character - who is clearly and most definitely not an Oralian himself - quotes an old poem that, in retrospect, is pretty obviously about Oralians and quite possibly about Astraea (or so I interpret it, with raised eyebrow). The poem even refers to "my matriarch", and I've often thought that old Cardassian = elephants would make considerable sense; again, likely coincidence, but it makes me wonder...
As for what went wrong to transform this obedient, functional hierarchal society into the Union we know and mourn, where those instincts are twisted into a dysfunctional, oppressive nightmare, I suppose the pressures of planetary environmental chaos would have a highly negative effect on such a structured society. I'm reminded of what happens when adolescent male elephants leave the female herds and there aren't any elder bulls around to "mentor" them (having all been culled, for example); the young bulls often become unusually aggressive, their musth cycle is abnormal, they're known to rampage around killing rhinoceros or humans for no real reason...but they calm down when older bulls are introduced and they perceive themselves as part of a healthy, supportive hierarchy again. Apparently, an elephant cannot be psychologically stable absent the hierarchy, and in males at least an absence of that hierarchy can lead to dangerous aggression. Combined with the restriction of herds to reserves, the shooting of elders, the death of mothers leaving orphaned calves (keeping in mind there's no father-child bond in elephants; the mother is their one and only parent)...human behaviour has had a serious and negative effect on many elephant populations, in terms of society as well as numbers.
Pressures that place strain on a society and a hierarchy; that might help us understand Cardassins, I think. With the collapse of the spiritual Cardassian society of old, and the loss of faith in the old ways, the gods, the leaders and their philosophies - and the rapid rise of a militant philosophy to replace it - are we seeing a form of civilization-wide trauma that Cardassians are particularly vulnerable to? I've come to wonder if pre-Central Command Cardassia - the apparently healthy Cardassia - might not be compared to elephant society. The elders and priests of the old society would be akin to the matriarchs, guiding the people and respected for their wisdom. But, for whatever reason, the planet's climate failed. Whether the population grew too large for the world to support, whether it was a natural shift in orbit, or any number of other issues, Cardassia was no longer sufficient to support the population. I always think; what would happen if there was no water, and no matter where the matriarch led the herd *nothing* presented itself. Would her people blame her for "failing" them, even though it's not her fault? With half the herd dying, might not the structure of this society fall apart? Thinking of those young male elephants who run rampage in the absence of elders to guide them, and keeping in mind that Cardassians combine the male elephant's competitiveness with the female elephants' social instinct, it seems sadly plausible that those angry, aggressive young men might depose the old leaders who are now seen as having failed them. I'm reminded of "Day of the Vipers", and Danig Kell's angry insistence that the Oralian Way were repressive and poor leaders.
After all, what is modern Cardassia if not a nation in which angry, aggressive men took control and declared themselves in charge for the supposed good of all? A society whose entire worldview is defined as "the old ways failed us. The old leaders were decadent, stagnating us. Now we're in charge, and we will preserve our people through any means necessary. We are your leaders now, and we will keep the group strong"?
Cardassia, I'd propose, is akin to a failed elephant herd where the psychologically damaged, aggressively out of control young men ended up in charge, and grew into a ruling class of old men dedicated to perpetuating that system. This is a traumatized society where the instincts for obedience, hierarchy, group identification and duty to provide leadership have been twisted through their inheritance by leaders who remember too well the suffering of the slow collapse of their old society and lost faith - not just in gods or religions, but in the idea that their more peaceable, measured forebears could possibly save them.
Nov 19 2012, 11:31 AM
This is a topic that came up elsewhere, on the Trek BBS. It got a few responses, the longest from myself, but there was little discussion. I thought it was worth re-posting my thoughts here; I don't know how many of our regulars are familiar with Babylon Five's
Centauri, but even if you're not, I'd be interested to see if my conclusions regarding Cardassians strike anyone as accurate.
The two races have similar thematic arcs in their respective shows; being an established part of the political setting with a history of aggression against their neighbours, yet who seem, in earlier seasons, to be slowly mellowing and showing signs of progress - in large part due to a general decline that prompts re-examination of their political values. However, both races then enter into questionable alliances in order to kick off a new round of expansion and aggression, leading to disaster as they end up being pawns of other powers and eventually wind up on the wrong side of a planetary bombardment.
In the original thread, someone had posted the immortal question: who wins in a fight? I gave a rambling reply which I'll reproduce below:
The biggest weakness of both cultures (besides their tendency to piss off neighbouring races with their arrogant aggression and ruthless treatment of other populations) is their apparent lack of capacity for racial unity. Backstabbing power plays and vicious competition between bloodlines, power blocs and individuals are the norm in both Cardassian and Centauri societies, and this endemic in-fighting weakens their ability to wield the influence they otherwise could. Too much of their scheming is channeled into petty retributions and jostling for position within their own hierarchies, rather than the cause of bettering their people.
The Cardassians call themselves a Union, drawing together in mutual discipline and sacrifice to ensure their shared survival, but in practice they're still at each other's throats, seemingly unable to play nice or put the needs of their population above their own ambition. The Centauri are perhaps more honest about their nature but less sympathetic, having a society dedicated to flaunting resources and power for their own sake rather than as a means to survival. That said, they have a system wherein people are supposed to accept their position with grace (nobility loyal to the emperor, lesser nobles respectful of greater houses, commoners and slaves accepting their place in the scheme of things), but in practice they're completely unable to live in the sedentary and structured system they've created, and behind the scenes they're desperately grabbing for power and influence wherever they can.
Both races, I think, have desperately imposed a static, repressive and rigid social structure over their peoples - Cardassians a conformist militant police state, Centauri a class-based hierarchy. They've both further insisted that duty to this system is among a citizen's higest values. In truth, they've both slapped this system over a viciously competitive mindset that is unable to overcome the urge to knock others down in order to climb higher yourself, and it always shows through.
As for who "wins" in a fight, though?
The Centauri are ruthless, but they're also hedonists. They delight in decadence, ostentatious display of impracticality, pointless tradition for the sake of tradition. Excess and waste is practically a requirement for their nobility, and their celebrations are based on an "eat, drink and be merry, because, hey, we're alive and that's great!" mentality. And with the defeat of the Xon, they triumphed over the only real competitor they ever knew. So they believe it's now their birthright to be on top. They're apex predators, at least as I see them, and like all predators they don't expend energy unless they feel they need to. If their status as top dog is threatened, then they "need" to, and they're ruthless and driven (no doubt falling back into Xon War thinking) until the opponent is crushed. The military thoroughness for which they're renowned seems a display of precision and power that points to real dedication...but when the threat is over, then it's time to party again.
Cardassians, though, never party. They believe the supposed needs of Cardassia are justification for militant acquisition of resources, and the ruling parties justify their position through military service history rather than birthright. They're constantly pressured into continuing their militancy, either by the genuine desire to stave off scarcity or the knowledge that they hold on to their power only by seeming to serve the needs of Cardassia. Where Centauri are dedicated and ruthless when they feel their power is threatened or else feel the need to flaunt it and remind everyone who's boss, the Cardassians are dedicated and ruthless pretty much all the time, because they constantly have their backs to the wall, partly due to factors beyond their control, partly due to their own messed-up society and its expectations.
So what it comes down to, I think, is: who has the greater need to win? The old lion fighting to retain leadership of his pride, who would otherwise be lounging about but is NOT going to let anyone challenge him and still knows how to show everyone else who's boss, or the lean, starving lion whose life has been one long battle for survival and who is driven to take that leadership position no matter what? Who wants it more?
(The OP responded to this by pointing out, quite rightly, that "Cardassians never party" wasn't really true, as Dukat and company's behaviour on Terok Nor demonstrates. I offered a reply:
Fair point. Yes, I probably exaggerated there; you're right that we do see indulgence and even displays of luxury and excess among Cardassians. Still, that seems to be a periodic release from the pressures of discipline and duty rather than a lifestyle, and it apparently tends to happens on frontier outposts and colonies; I always got the impression that, like the extramarital affairs with Bajoran women, the drinking and gambling wasn't exactly socially acceptable, only people shrugged and turned a blind eye to it so long as it stayed out in the colonies.)
So, anyone else have thoughts on Cardassians Vs Centauri, or the Cardassian's relative strengths and weaknesses?
Oct 20 2012, 01:06 PM
I've just alighted in Tarlak Sector, having flown in from the rather cosmopolitan Trek BBS. Those who know the BBS will probably know me. If not, well, I'm sort of difficult to describe, but I hope to be a productive part of the forum. I've been considering joining for some time, but was feeling a bit cautious, not wanting to intrude. Given that I'm new here, I'll probably spend some time getting the lay of the land before I jump in too deep (excuse that rather ugly mixed metaphor).