There’s a fond belief among the comfortable classes of our time, and for that matter every other time, that the future can be arranged in advance through reasonable discussions among reasonable people. Popular though this notion is, it’s quite mistaken. What history shows, rather, is that the future is always born on the irrational fringes of society, bursting forth among outcasts, dreamers, saints, and fools. It then sweeps inward from there, brushing aside the daydreams of those who thought they could make the world do as they pleased.
Consider the Roman Empire in the days of its power. While its politicians and bureaucrats laid their plans and built their careers on the presupposition that their empire would endure for all imaginable time, a prisoner on a Mediterranean island—exiled for his membership in a despised religious cult—saw the empire racked with wars, famines, and plagues, ravaged by horsemen galloping out of the east, and finally conquered and fallen into ruin, to be followed by a thousand years of triumph for his faith. We call him John of Patmos today, and his vision forms the last book of the New Testament. He was a figure of the uttermost fringe in his own era: isolated, powerless, and quite possibly crazy. He was also right.
Thus it’s important to keep a close eye on the fringes of contemporary culture, the places where the future is being born out of the surging tides of unreason. One of the things I watch most closely with this in mind is the burgeoning realm of contemporary conspiracy theories. Those reveal far more than the conventionally minded imagine, irrespective of their factual accuracy or lack of same. As Alain de Botton commented of religions, whether conspiracy theories are true or not is far and away the least interesting question about them.
To begin with, the popularity of conspiracy theories is a sensitive measure of the degree to which people no longer trust the conventional wisdom of their time. That’s an explosive issue just now, and for good reason: the conventional wisdom of our time is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground. Look across the whole range of acceptable views presented by qualified pundits, and by and large you’ll find that a randomly chosen fortune cookie will give you better guidance. The debacle in Afghanistan is only one reminder of the extent that a popular joke about economics—“What do you call an economist who makes a prediction? Wrong.”—can be applied with equal force to most of the experts whose notions guide industrial societies.
What makes the astounding incompetence of today’s expert opinions so toxic is that nobody in the corporate media, and next to nobody in the political sphere, is willing to talk about it. No matter how disastrous the consequences turn out to be—no matter how often the economic policies that were supposed to yield prosperity result in poverty and misery, no matter how often programs meant to improve the schools make them worse, no matter how many drugs released on the market as safe and effective turn out to be neither, and so on at great length—one rule remains sacrosanct: no one outside the managerial class is supposed to question the validity of the next round of expert-approved policies, no matter how obviously doomed to fail they are.
Gregory Bateson, in a fascinating series of articles collected in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, discussed the way that schizophrenia is created by this kind of suppression of the obvious in a family setting. Insist to a child from infancy onward that something is true that the child can see is obviously not true, punish the child savagely every time it tries to bring up the contradiction, and there’s a fair chance the child will grow up to be schizophrenic. Conspiracy theories in society are the collective equivalent of schizophrenia in the individual, and they have the same cause: the systematic gaslighting of individuals who know that they are being lied to.
Bateson’s analysis goes further than this. He noticed that, bizarre as schizophrenic delusions can be, they always contain a solid core of truth expressed in exaggerated and metaphoric language. Look into the family situation, Bateson suggests, and you can decode the metaphors. Here’s a patient who claims that he’s Jesus Christ. Observation of the family reveals one of those wretched family dramas, as dysfunctional as it is endlessly repeated, in which the patient was assigned an ill-fitting role from birth. What the patient is saying, in his exaggerated and metaphoric way, is quite accurate: “I’m not who they say I am.”
With this in mind, let’s take a look at what is far and away the most interesting of the many conspiracy theories in circulation just now: the belief, remarkably widespread in fringe culture these days, that the mighty Tartarian Empire—one of the great civilizations of human history, which ruled directly or indirectly over most of Eurasia well into the 19th century and had a substantial presence in the Americas as well—has been erased from the history books. After the empire was destroyed by titanic floods of mud, the story has it, its very existence was suppressed by a conspiracy, and its remaining traces are being demolished as we speak.
Believers in the Tartarian Empire point to old maps that include “Great Tartary” and other historical tidbits of the same general kind as one body of evidence for their claim. Another, far more interesting body of evidence is the presence of a particular set of architectural styles across much of the world. Star-shaped forts are one marker of the Tartarian presence. Domes are another. The main thing that sets Tartarian architecture apart, however, is that unlike modern architecture, it’s not sickeningly ugly. Among the venues where Tartarian architecture can be seen in its full glory are surviving pictures of the great World’s Fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These, believers say, were actually the capitals of Tartarian colonial governments, which were destroyed and replaced by ugly modern buildings once the empire fell; all that yammering about world’s fairs is simply part of the coverup.
As I noted above, whether all this is true is the least interesting question concerning it. If, dear reader, you believe in the existence of the Tartarian Empire, I’d encourage you to skip the next five paragraphs entirely. The point of this essay isn’t to debunk your beliefs or to tell you how wrong you are—for reasons we’ll get to in a bit, that’s a waste of time. Bon voyage, and we’ll meet again further down the page.
With that said, let’s start by talking about some actual history. People in much of Europe used to refer to the Mongols as Tartars, as a product of the same sort of historico-linguistic tangle that has people in the English-speaking world referring to the nation of Deutschland as “Germany.” From the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, maps and geography books in western Europe used the label “Tartary” for the realm ruled by Genghis Khan and his successors, in the same way they labeled the whole northern coast of Africa indiscriminately as “Barbary.” The portion of Tartary from the Urals east to the Pacific Ocean, the vast and (to western Europeans) little-known region that Russians call Sibir’ and most people now call Siberia, was called Great Tartary in English and Grand Tartarie in French, and appears accordingly on maps well into the nineteenth century. The same sources occasionally give a flag for Great Tartary, as they do for every other nation, whether it actually had a flag or not; the Tartarian flag has a black winged critter—usually a wyvern or a gryphon, but sometimes an owl—on a gold background.
Read travelers’ accounts of Great Tartary from these same years—there are plenty of those, by the way—and you’ll find conditions not all that different from those in the American West in the first half of the nineteenth century. The empire of Genghis Khan had long since disintegrated into an assortment of smaller khanates in the grassland regions of Siberia, while a great many tribal societies dwelt in the forest and tundra regions. Travel through that vast space was on roughly the same terms that Lewis and Clark faced on their expedition to the Pacific. You could find beautiful cities with splendid domes in the southern reaches of Tartary—Samarkand comes to mind—but what you’d find elsewhere amounted to clusters of yurts on vast prairies, little villages on riverbends surrounded by trackless forests, stone lamaseries clinging to the sides of mountains, enigmatic ruins of lost civilizations, and immense stretches of land where the traces of human presence were very few and far between.
During these same centuries, while the Russian Empire slowly exerted its authority over this gargantuan territory, the kind of architecture that now gets identified as Tartarian spread over most of the world. Its proper name is neoclassical architecture, and it’s what happened when the architectural innovations of the Italian Renaissance got taken up by the great imperial powers of western Europe and splashed across most of the globe. In 1900, remember, the vast majority of the planet was either ruled from a European capital or occupied by the peoples of the European diaspora. (The British Empire alone ruled a quarter of the Earth’s land surface.)
Where political power goes, cultural influence follows. In every European colony and every country settled by European immigrants, neoclassicism was de rigueur for public architecture. Even in countries such as China, which maintained a fragile independence during the high tide of European empire, neoclassical buildings sprang up wherever European business interests set up shop. The famous star forts were a product of the same expansion of power, though for more pragmatic reasons; they were developed in the Renaissance once it turned out that castles were fatally vulnerable to cannon fire, and were quickly adopted all over the world once European fleets armed with cannon set sail for distant shores. They worked, too—Fort McHenry, which fought off a British siege in the War of 1812 and thereby inspired the US national anthem, was a star fort of the classic type, and shrugged off British cannonballs until the dawn’s early light.
All this is fairly easy to find out from contemporary sources. Why, then, do so many people on the thickly inhabited fringes of contemporary culture gaze longingly on the mirage of a vast and thriving empire of domed cities and star forts hovering over the immense wilderness of Siberia, sending phantom armies and fleets to seize the mastery of the world, before terrible floods of mud swept it all away? The answer, as Bateson would doubtless have suggested, can be traced to certain unmentionable facts about today’s world.
The first point to keep in mind is that when Tartarian believers say that the history taught to them in the schools is full of lies, they’re right. The history taught to children in every literate society is a mix of well-meaning attempts to summarize the terrifying complexity and ambiguity of the past, on the one hand, and self-serving mythologies meant to justify existing distributions of wealth and influence, on the other. These days, as in most civilizations in decline, the balance has swung very far toward the latter. Some things you’ll find in textbooks are flat-out lies—it’s a matter of easily provable fact, for example, that nobody in Europe thought the world was flat the year that Columbus set sail—but much more of it has been assiduously cherrypicked to support various canned narratives, and a great many facts have been silently buried to keep those same narratives intact. The arguments being used to support the existence of the Tartarian Empire, for that matter, are no more bizarre than those being used to prop up such dubious causes celebrés of modern historiography as the 1619 Project.
The prevalence of massive dishonesty in the conventional wisdom of our time is one of the core reasons why attempts by skeptics to disprove the existence of the Tartarian Empire find so little traction among believers. The skeptic movement launched with such fanfare at the end of the 1970s failed, after all, because it was never skeptical enough: its skepticism only pointed in one direction, toward those beliefs that didn’t serve the interests of the corporate economy and its academic hangers-on. No matter how much self-serving nonsense gets spewed out by the pharmaceutical industry, to cite only one obvious example, self-proclaimed skeptics embrace it with the same blind faith that they denounce as fundamentalism in other contexts. “Pfizer said it, I believe it, that settles it” is their invariable motto.
When skeptics belly up to an argument claiming to be the voice of science and reason, in other words, everyone else knows that they’re simply shills for the status quo, loudly proclaiming that nobody is supposed to believe anything that inconveniences their corporate masters. It doesn’t hurt that making fun of skeptics is such good sport. Like other people who think they have sole ownership of The Truth™, today’s skeptics invariably wade into the fray with the sort of gruesome earnestness Nietzsche mocked so merrily in the opening lines of Beyond Good and Evil. That’s hilarious to watch, and it’s even funnier when the skeptics don’t get the reaction they expect and melt down in a Donald Duck splutterfest. I’m quite sure that one of the main reasons people embrace strange belief systems today is that skeptics are so fun to tease.
So there’s one truth at the heart of the Tartarian vision: the official version of history is not all that much more accurate than theirs. Another, of course, has to do with the architecture that takes center stage on so many Tartarian websites. It’s not at all surprising that neoclassical architecture should have found itself at the focus of a conspiracy theory, because public architecture always has a massive political dimension, and anyone who talks honestly about the politics of today’s ugly architecture can expect plenty of gaslighting from the shills of the status quo.
Fortunately it’s not hard to decode the messages that modern architecture communicates. As a product of the human imagination, it can be analyzed in the same way as a dream, a delusion, or for that matter a conspiracy theory. Take a look at modern public architecture, and you’ll find that it communicates certain things very clearly. Those stark facades and blank windows mark it as an architecture of exclusion—it says, “You don’t belong here.” Its rejection of traditional design and ornament mark it as an architecture of collective senility: “The past is irrelevant.” Its abandonment of proportional geometries based on the human body, a keynote of architecture oin earlier times, mark it as an antihuman architecture: “Human beings don’t matter.” Its sickening ugliness, finally, sends the clearest message of all: “We don’t care.”
Proponents of modern architecture love to claim that it’s more egalitarian than the neoclassical architecture it replaced. The raw mendacity of that claim can be seen in a simple fact: the most inviolable rule of modern architecture is that ordinary people must be permitted no say in the built environment of their public spaces. Neoclassical architecture is everything modern architecture is not—its intricate engagement with its surroundings makes it inclusive, its ongoing conversation with the past marks it as historically meaningful, its use of proportional geometries marks it as essentially humane, and its beauty marks it as an affirmation of the people who live and work in and around it. That’s why so many people love it and hate what has replaced it. Give them a voice, and architects who insist on copying the current ugliness would be out of jobs.
The replacement of a meaningful and beautiful built environment by a meaningless and ugly one in the not so distant past is one of the core things the Tartarian Empire theory is communicating. Believers in that theory who talk in a straightforward way about the delights of neoclassical architecture can count on fielding the same kind of gaslighting that makes for schizophrenia in a family setting. These days, that’ll probably take the form of diatribes insisting that neoclassical architecture is racist, since “racist” is the way “doubleplusungood” is pronounced in today’s Newspeak, but there have been other excuses for that sort of putdown in the past and there will doubtless be others in the future. The fact remains that describing modern architecture as butt-ugly is an insult to honest rumps, and the messages modern architecture communicates so clearly are things everyone is supposed to perceive but nobody is ever supposed to talk about.
So the critique that can’t be spoken aloud takes shape on the fringes as the vision of a forgotten empire, where shining marble domes caught the sunlight, erased from history by a torrent of esthetic and ideological mud. Those of my readers who think that such symbolic critiques can’t have an influence on what we are pleased to call the real world haven’t been paying attention. To begin with, if someone were to walk out into a public square in some midwestern American city tomorrow, raise the black and gold banner of Great Tartary, proclaim the rebirth of the Tartarian Empire, and call for young men to join the imperial legions, it’s pretty likely that he’d get a substantial response—especially if tearing down every scrap of modern public architecture and replacing it with neoclassical buildings was part of his platform.
Yet there are subtler ways that change happens. I’m thinking here of one of Jorge Luis Borges’ more intriguuing stories, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In the story, a secret society, Orbis Tertius (literally “the third world”), was founded in the seventeenth century to transform the world. It did so by creating an imaginary country, Uqbar, whose people tell legends about a world named Tlön. Bit by bit, as the concepts spread, the fiction takes on reality and our world begins to look more and more like Tlön. It’s possible that someone set the Tartarian Empire theory in motion with an eye toward some similar project. It seems rather more probable to me that the theory has morphed in that direction through an analogue of convergent evolution, providing a frame in which people can think thoughts that are forbidden by the rigid ideological dogmas of our age.
One way or another, I’d encourage my readers to watch this space. The black and gold banner of the Tartarian Empire may just be fluttering in the winds of the future.
It occurs to me that December this year has five Wednesdays, and I have nothing scheduled for the fifth of those. We might as well follow the established custom, therefore. What would you like to hear about? Inquiring Druids want to know. 😉