Final Letter

What makes a successful society?

To Whom it May Concern–

When I received the project assignment for second semester that required a detailed inquiry of how I make connections and orient my thoughts, I realized that its openness allowed me to choose any topic that I had a previous desire to learn about. At the time, I had been noticing that a great number of events or situations in the news about either social, political, or international issues were completely foreign to be. Anytime that I happened to see a political cartoon on the internet that made no sense to me I would get a sinking feeling that I was unaware of so many things that were taking place in the world. That was why, for my project, I had decided to look at some of the history behind these things in order to not only understand what was happening, but be able to contribute my own opinions and insights on the occurrences around me. Because many of the issues people were discussing had to do with what was best for society and if some nations were declining, I decided to investigate what truly made a successful society and to do that by beginning with the beginning of civilization in itself with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. Ultimately, my research led me to have a greater understanding of the balance of power between nature and man, the common citizen and the governmental leader, and the general public and its rulers.

When I began to read Diamond’s book, I had expected my project to focus on the physical factors such climate and environment that would have caused one society or civilization to develop better than another. However, while these were certainly things I considered and read about in my first book, my thoughts tended to drift toward the influences human behaviors had on a community’s growth. One concept that Diamond mentioned that I took particular notice of was “Whenever some scientist claims to have discovered ‘the earliest X’…that announcement challenges other scientists to beat the claim by finding something still earlier,” meaning that the scientist’s desire for recognition would propel him to always look for something older and more impressive than what the last person found. This reminded me of a TED talk that I watched called “Where are the baby dinosaurs?” in which Jack Horner explained explained that many of the already existing different species of dinosaurs have so many common similarities in body structure that they could actually be of the same species at different age levels and that the scientists’ desire to have the credit for finding a new dinosaur overpowered their desire to further investigate. This was a crucial revelation for me because it demonstrated that people have not only an impact on the future, but on the past as well. By misinterpreting events that have happened, people have the power to change history by transforming how it is seen. This insight also made it clear that I needed to further explore human motivations and actions in the development of civilization. The human aspect then became central in my research which led to a narrower focus and a deeper study of more recent history. Because of this, I watched the first episode of Mankind: The Story of All of Us to see how difference in audience and the author’s purpose can change how the information is represented. However, despite my shift in focus, I still wanted to see what the main components of a prosperous nation were. To do this, I realized, I was not able to simply look at the rise of empires because a society starting does not mean it will last. To find an accurate answer, I had to also look at the collapse of these same empires. That was why I chose to read Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History by Orlando Figes because it gave me a closer look at the rise and fall of the Soviet union which allowed me to zoom in and examine the specific people and behaviors that led to different actions in the nation.

Because the beginnings and ends of a society cannot be truly separated because the collapse of one often means the rise of another, understanding the tools for this transition is vitally important to seeing how both ends happen. Some of the biggest and most effective tools that I found were revolutions. After reading how the Russian Revolution played out in Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History, I outlined the pattern that I noticed that fit these events and that I believe can be applied to other insurgent movements as well. My pattern, however, does not really demonstrate how a movement is fostered and then executed, but rather what it develops into after its acquisition of power. The first step of the process can be labeled as extreme revulsion for the type of government and leaders it just replaced. This means that the new government goes against anything that vaguely resembles the previous rule and results in policies that are completely opposite of what had existed. However, the second step—the economic and societal failure of the system—shows that striving for the opposite of a broken system does not result in a prosperous system. The reason for this is the assumption made by the revolutionaries that the old government was completely evil and wholly faulty. However, there is hardly ever time where no piece or policy of a government worked because, after all, if it lasted for any amount of time, something had to have operated with a relative amount of success. So even if just one part of the old system functioned properly, the flip of the entire system would mean the piece that worked before now does not. That is why such extreme governments do not last because clinging to one side means missing important necessities that come from the middle, but that leads us to the third step. The third step is the realization that remaining on one side of the spectrum does not allow success, and then compromise. The movement or new government will likely see that sticking to their ideals in every issue leads to problems and will make slight concessions that make it inch back toward the middle ground. The acceptance of some of these old policies as compromise push the movement farther and farther away from its beliefs until the system looks scarily similar to what it did before the revolution.

This template of course cannot be applied to all revolutions however I did find some that fit my mold fairly well. The first was the Bolshevik regime which began with completely socialist policies, but adapted them in small ways to lead to an overall more oppressive system than the last had been. I confirmed this after watching the American film Doctor Zhivago about an upper class family experiencing the revolution. All of the perceptions that the movie displayed had to be taken with the knowledge that it was made by Americans during the Cold War, but it was still an interesting tool for evaluation of my process. However, as I did model my template after this Russian government, I had to look for other outside situations that also followed the steps. This led me to watch the movie Danton which was set in post-revolutionary France about a once important revolutionary, Georges Danton, who no longer agreed with the methods of his movement. When they arrest him for speaking out against the revolution he claims “They’ve established a new dictatorship worse than the old,” and the film ends with the leader of the movement that had Danton killed listening to his nephew recite the ideals of the revolution all the while knowing that he had contradicted each one with his actions. I felt like this was a fairly good example of my pattern because it showed the human tendency to lean toward power and away from justice as the leaders would do in the pattern.

Overall, the study of revolutions and the duration of societies led me not to a direct answer of what components really must be present for a civilization to be successful, but to a new knowledge of human behavior and a way to seek patterns and connections in the way events play out which was ultimately a goal of mine at the beginning of the semester. While I know that I will continue reading and learning in order to further my knowledge on different topics, I believe I am currently more capable of registering the events around me and making my own judgments on them because of my research for this project.

-Haley McGeorge

What makes a successful society?

Works Cited

Final Project Part 1

Final Project Part 2

Separate Presentation

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Posted on May 11, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A successful society as seen in many civilizations occurs when the majority of the population is happy with their situation. You said that humans have a tendency to lean towards power and not justice, and this can coincide with how some philosophers believe people are inherently bad. The aspect I see is that a society is most successful when the majority of the people are working to keep the society fair and do the what’s best for the greater good. This may embody some utilitarian values, though not always.

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  2. Being well versed in both Jared Diamond as well as The Russian revolutions your points are very clear and very logical I did not think to look at it that way before especially in regards to the Russian revolution. Your presentation made points easier to follow and I agree with your statement made about the human tendency to lean towards power. You would also see this in comparing figures of authority depending on rank, like comparing the strive for power found within presidential elections.

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  3. The structure of the letter is clever in that it moves from general theory to application of that theory to society. I think you hit on a solid point when you suggest that extremes don’t often work. Although you were analyzing it in the revolutionary sense, I think it also applies to American politics in that many candidates need to appear extremely dedicated to the far right or left, but then must moderate to get elected. This is true with presidential candidates in the past two elections at least. It all suggests that moderation is a difficult stance to maintain. It has been cool to see both of your projects play out. I imagine as a result of them you have a much more detailed understanding of geopolitical conflict.
    The screencast is impressive in its depth, development, and specific detail. The transitions from Diamond’s work to those who question it, to even considering what the terms mean in context of the larger theory, all works to clarify the path you followed. Above all, your willingness to dive deep into each issue and to really test your working hypothesis as you moved along is indicative of the highest level of thought. I appreciate the effort and the thoroughness. Well done.

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