A couple of years ago, blogger and artist Matthew Inman (theoatmeal.com) drew a comic titled “You’re Not Going to Believe What I’m About to Tell You”, essentially explaining the “backfire effect” and our almost instinctive resistance to new information when that new information contradicts prior, long-held beliefs- i.e., George Washington owned a set of dentures made from the teeth of his slaves.
We don’t like hearing these kinds of facts. They contradict the mental space we inhabit, showing the world in an honest, ugly light, and most people have an intrinsic revulsion to that kind of ugly honesty.
I would encourage readers to take a few minutes to read and digest Inman’s comic before starting Dr. Joseph Abraham’s Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths, because it is harrowing from the first page and the “backfire effect” is very real.
Across the course of his tome (and at over 300 pages tome is the right word here), Abraham systematically breaks down what he calls the “fairy tale” of history. Childish fantasies that we hold into adulthood about good kings or noble conquerors are torn away and these historical figures are revealed as they were: murderers, sadists, and worse on a grand scale, a continental or even global scale.
Therein lies the thesis of Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths— from this bloody foundation all civilization as we know it was formed. There is not a country today that was not created through bloodshed or conquest in some form or another and those stains still stick. It’s a bleak outlook, but then when a book starts with the My Lai Massacre of 1968, bleakness is to be expected.
Written by an American, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths has an obvious American cast to it. I would be curious to see this same book written by someone from a different kind of democracy, one without the same history. What is a New Zealander’s take on the Vietnam War and American atrocities committed therein? How would a Greenlander or a Canadian describe Queen Victoria? Abraham convincingly describes her in the light of Genghis Khan, would someone from a different culture do the same? Hitler and Nazis play a heavy role across the book as some of the best documented perpetrators of atrocities in the 20th century, how would a German fit WWII into the scope of history?
Going back to Inman and the “backfire effect”, there is an instinctive desire to see Nazism as an aberration. That Hitler was a particularly bad man who did bad things whose badness we’ve learned from and will never repeat again. Personal hopes for atrocities left unrepeated aside, Abraham argues that Hitler was just one conqueror in a line as long as history itself, stretching through King David of the Bible, Alexander the Great, British colonialism, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, Napoleon and beyond.
And yet Abraham’s book ends on an oddly hopeful note. For all the red on humanity’s collective ledger, Abraham sees us on the upswing. The slowest of rising arcs still curves persistently skyward—few developed countries are ruled by the man who murdered his way to the throne and murderers all challengers still, and an engaged public has the ability to hold leaders and corporations accountable (to an extent).
The hope is faint, the softest voice at the bottom of Pandora’s deep box, but it is there. As the closing lines says, “We are the last feedback in the system.” Essentially, We the People must be the final check and balance to the scale.
5/5, but be ready for what you’re getting into.