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THE FAIRNESS INSTINCT
THE ROBIN HOOD MENTALITY AND OUR BIOLOGICAL NATURE
By LIXING SUN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013 L. Sun
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION, OR, WHO IS ROBIN HOOD?
The "person" in Time magazine's 2011 "Person of the Year" is "the protester." It is the tenth time since its founding in 1927 that Time has recognized a class of people instead of an individual. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movements, from Russia to India, the protesters in 2011 around the globe shared two commonalties: Facebook and a desire for fairness—the new and the old. The new social-networking tool made manifesting the old fairness sentiment all the more rapid, all the more contagious, and all the more potent.
Whether at home in the United States or abroad, these protest movements largely hinge on a widespread disaffection that stems from what many perceive as growing political, social, and economic inequalities. In many ways, the OWS movements epitomized these global convulsions provoked by the public ire over the corporate bailouts, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the basic unfairness in tax policies, the last of which continues to be a divisive issue in America. While the "Occupy Wall Street" slogan seems to have slipped from parlance after the 2012 election season, the "99%" slogan continues to gain in potency.
Contrast this to just four years earlier, how mute such rhetoric was in the election of 2008. Even after the massive Wall Street sell-off in September 2008, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Great Depression, Republican John McCain was still vilifying Democrat Barack Obama as a modern-day Robin Hood for Obama's proposal to raise the income tax on the rich. Obama, McCain warned, wanted "socialism" and would go so far as to wage "class warfare" to "spread the wealth." McCain's pitch was apparently based on his take that Americans disliked playing Robin Hood. Such a public mentality—even if true at the time—would soon retreat.
In March 2009, the stock market continued its downward spiral, and the resulting financial tsunami wiped out American jobs en masse. In the meantime, executives at AIG were pocketing large annual bonuses—some $165 million in total. Americans—liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans—were furious. Only a few months earlier, the insurance behemoth was on the verge of bankruptcy. AIG would have gone belly-up if not for the timely infusion of $182 billion in bailout money, courtesy of American taxpayers. For the American public, rewarding fat bonuses to rich executives at a difficult time seemed equivalent to robbing people of their possessions. Amid a national outcry, the US Congress on March 19 passed an urgent bill to levy a staggering 90 percent tax on all similar payouts, only days after the news about the bonuses broke. Considering that Congress had been partially paralyzed by partisanship for years, it was surprisingly efficient in passing this special bill, intended to seize the bulk of the money from the bonus recipients. Among the supporters of the bill were eighty-five Republicans, who would otherwise hold lower taxes among their core conservative principles. Due to mounting public pressure, their decision was more about political survival than political principle, for the time being.
Company executives at AIG felt victimized. Despite the fact that 80 percent of AIG was owned by the government, the bonuses at the time accounted for only 0.076 percent of the company's value, a minute proportion, making it hard to claim they were entirely from taxpayers. Also, the bonus agreement had been set up well before the bailout. It was a contract that should, in principle, be honored. Furthermore, AIG was not the only company handing out extravagant bonuses, compensations, and golden parachutes to executives. All major financial firms either taken over by the government or resuscitated by TARP moneys—Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo—had done the same thing.
For AIG, it was unfortunate to be situated in the bull's-eye of public fury, but the political storm left a trail of questions in its wake. Why did bonuses and executive compensations suddenly matter so much in the psyche of the American public? Why was the voice against lavish pay packages for company executives so feeble before the election? Why, in a short four-month period, was there a sea change in public opinion? What was the powerful force behind this dramatic turn of events? The key to these mind-boggling questions lies in our Robin Hood mentality—a metaphor for our sense of fairness.
* * *
Who, then, is Robin Hood? The answer seems obvious for most of us. Fleshed out in ballads and folklores, Robin Hood is a legendary hero who robs the rich and gives to the poor. He is a savior for the poor and powerless. He opposes tyranny and fights against rich clerics and officials who are hated for their abysmal greed and wicked corruption. The legendary Robin Hood, agrees historian Maurice Keen, "displays many of the characteristics traditionally associated with fictional knightly heroes—courage, courtesy, loyalty, generosity, a free and open bearing."
Robin Hood is the hero of countless poems, songs, plays, novels, and comic books. Movies made Robin Hood all the more vivid: forty-nine Robin Hood films and TV series—nearly one in every two years, on average—have been produced since 1908. In the age of information, Robin Hood has gained a new life on the Internet. The University of Rochester, for instance, maintains a special website dedicated to scholarly studies of literature, history, and folklore of Robin Hood.
But there is a dilemma. A popular hero is usually well known for his name, birthright, and social stature. Yet exactly the opposite is true for Robin Hood. In fact, little is known as to who he really was beyond the stories in pop-cultural products. Even the "basic" facts about him are controversial at best. Is Robin Hood even the legendary hero's true name? Some believe the name Robin was derived from, among others, Robyn or Robert, both common in medieval England. The last name might be Hode or Hude, in addition to Hood. Robin Hood might simply be a generic name for fugitives and outlaws, such as Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, Fulk Fitzwarin, and William Wallace, who all gained some fame among English folks at the time.
Another controversy concerns the time Robin Hood lived. John Major, a sixteenth-century Scottish historian, believes that Robin Hood was active in 1193 or 1194, when King Richard's brother, John, attempted a coup against Richard. Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedic website, refers to the earliest mentioning of Robin Hood in 1228. In the absence of solid evidence, the dates of 1193 and 1228 could each be correct, depending on Robin Hood's age. Thomas Gale, dean of York between 1697 and 1702, thought Robin Hood died "on the 24 Kalends of December 1247." Keen believes "it is a very reasonable conjecture" that Robin Hood was still alive in 1266. "Considering the silence of chroniclers and poets alike before that time, it would seem very unlikely that he could have lived earlier than, say, the first quarter of the thirteenth century."
The third black hole surrounding Robin Hood's dubious identity is his social status. Earlier ballads put him as a yeoman. In preindustrial England, yeomen were commoners who owned small parcels of land. They sat above peasants in the English social hierarchy. Even so, there is some ambiguity. The word yeoman, according to historian John Bellamy, can refer to "both household servant and freeman." In the fourteenth century, it referred to artisans as well. An artisan, by definition, did not belong to the landowning class. So Robin Hood's exact social role isn't crystal clear, and folklores, in historian J. C. Holt's assessment, have done little but muddy the water. "At his first appearance Robin was a yeoman. He was then turned into a nobleman unjustly deprived of his inheritance, later into an Englishman protecting his native countrymen from the domination of the Normans, and finally into a social rebel who, in the peasant's struggle against the grasping landlord, retaliates against the person and property of the oppressor."
Even if Robin Hood's social status were beyond doubt, a yeoman, notices Keen, would be the least exciting person to ascend to the status of legendary hero. "Robin Hood the yeoman is not the kind of figure to catch the limelight of medieval historical writing. He has no part to play on the grand political stage; he is a forest robber of humble origins and his cause has to do with the conditions of the everyday social world, not with the melodramatic conspiracies which troubled the sleep of kings." Quite to the contrary, heroes typically emerge from the lower or the upper class of society, but rarely from the middle. Indeed, gallant aristocrats aside, many historic heroes—such as Spartacus, the Roman slave, and William Tell, the Swiss peasant rebel—rose from the downtrodden or the oppressed in Western societies. Sitting snugly on the middle rung of a social hierarchy, yeomen were probably the least inspiring and colorful, simply because they were too common, too plain, or too little motivated to do something dramatic. They lacked the theatrical aroma necessary for delicious yarns.
Unsurprisingly, Robin Hood was elevated to a noble in later versions of his legends. Playwright Anthony Munday named Robin Hood Earl of Huntington in 1598. And, in 1746, William Stukeley, an officious Royal Society fellow, cooked up a spurious aristocrat pedigree for Robin Hood. Such fudging paved the way for legitimizing the romance between Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the sister of King Richard, in a time when status mismatch was a stiff taboo for marriage in English society. With love and hatred peppering up an otherwise dull yeoman's life, we now have a chivalric hero.
Last but not least, how did Robin Hood become a lawless fugitive? One theory suggests that he was forced to become an outlaw by King Richard's evil brother John while Richard was away, leading the eastward march during the Third Crusade. Alternatively, Robin Hood was "indicted out of malice" by the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and forced to live in the woods. The sheriff's malevolence goaded Robin Hood to serve justice with his own hands. Though a popular and seemingly reasonable account, little historical evidence gives it any support. Even the bedeviled sheriff had no real match among those who ruled the area at the time. "Robin's tale ... is imprecise," Holt concedes. "He is an outlaw, but no one explains why. He is in conflict with the sheriff but no reason is ever given; it is simply that the sheriff represents the law and Robin stands outside it. His story is less committed to immediate circumstances."
But regardless of the dearth of evidence regarding whether he is a real person, Robin Hood continues to survive as a shining hero in traditional and modern media in those societies thick with English culture. Apart from Jesus Christ, few other fabled figures have enjoyed such broad, timeless appeal and influence. Why has Robin Hood been so popular for so long? Paradoxically, part of the answer lies beyond medieval England.
* * *
Hardly confined to English folklore, incarnations of Robin Hood can be found in many other Western nations and societies, including "Rob Roy" MacGregor in Scotland, Louis-Dominique Bourguignon and Robert Mandrin in France, Johannes Bückler and Matthias Weber in Germany, Diego Corrientes in Spain, Angelo Duca in Italy, Stenka Razin and Emel'yan Pugachev in Russia, Juro Janoik in Hungary, Chucho El Roto and Jesús Malverde in Mexico, to name just a few. All of them were credible historical figures. Like Robin Hood, they were outlaws and rebels who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Like their English parallel, they have been hailed as folk heroes of some sort. Were they copycats of the English Robin Hood?
Eastern folklore is not short of versions of Robin Hood. In China, Korea, Japan, and other East and Southeast Asian countries, Robin Hood–like characters masquerade as martial artists or samurais with insuperable fighting skills. They, too, rob the rich and help the poor as their way of serving justice. In countless stories, ballads, legends, and fairy tales, these martial artists come to rescue people from local toughs, bullies, and villains, who are stereotypically the rich and corrupt. Such chivalric stories are so popular in China today that they represent a unique literary genre of their own in books, movies, and TV series, usually with predictable plots and endings. Apparently banal to the creative mind, they nonetheless claim large numbers of readers and viewers, enjoying a substantial share in the media and entertainment market. Westerners can get a glimpse of this genre in movies ranging from those starring Bruce Lee to more recent Chinese ones such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, which all reflect a general theme otherwise completely missing in the West—if not for the sake of Robin Hood. How can we resolve the dilemma of why there have been so many different versions of Robin Hood in so many cultures for so long, if Robin Hood is only a fictional figure? Is this a mere coincidence between Western and Eastern cultures?
Today, while throngs of Chinese are fixated upon their kung-fu Robin Hoods, Americans are engrossed in Robin Hoods of their own creation, regardless of vast differences in history and culture. Revenge stories have dominated the silver screen with such classic films as Ben-Hur (1959), the Godfather trilogy, the Death Wish series, Carrie (1976), Unforgiven (1992), Braveheart (1995), and Gladiator (2000), to name only a few. The stereotypical heroes in American Western movies epitomized by Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood are largely variants of Robin Hood. And, in their upgraded versions, cowboys are replaced by testosterone-charged idols in the bodies of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and other macho actors. As though the musculature of these invincible men is not impressive enough, Hollywood has resorted to supernatural heroes—Superman, Spider-Man, Batman—who possess unearthly prowess to resolve problems insurmountable by our own species. What can we make of the popularity of these movies and their protagonists?
"[The Robin Hood] legend is about justice," observed Holt decades ago. "Robin is ... an embodiment of honour and an agent of retribution.... Robin also foreshadows the world of superman and the comic strip." The broad appeal and off-the-chart box-office success of many of these surreal movies can hardly be entirely explained by their artistic creativity and dazzling special effect; it also lies in the themes of the yarns that resonate in the viewers: a desire for fairness and justice.
* * *
A secular value of universal appeal, fairness is omnipresent and often sacred, to a degree that major religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam—claim it as a religious virtue. Most, if not all, societies—ancient or modern, tribal or industrial—have some notion concerning equality and fairness in economic, social, and political status.
Probably the most essential rule in social engagement, fairness has shaped human relationships, molded human societies, and directed the course of civilization. It governs virtually all aspects of our society, from economics, politics, education, and military organization to sports and entertainment. Its long arms grip issues as small as division of family chores between a couple, gift exchanges between friends, and daily interactions with coworkers. It also underlies major social, economic, and political issues such as taxation, gender equality, racial relationships, and international affairs.
Furthermore, fairness is the foundation for justice—the most important moral principle in human societies. For French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, government was disposable; justice was not:
Justice, under various names, governs the world—nature and humanity, science and conscience, logic and morals, political economy, politics, history, literature and art. Justice is that which is most primitive in the human soul, most fundamental in society, most sacred among ideas, and what the masses demand today with most ardour. It is the essence of religions and at the same time the form of reason, the secret object of faith, and the beginning, middle and end of knowledge. What can be imagined more universal, more strong, more complete than justice?
Indeed, fairness underpins many landmark events in both Eastern and Western societies. In the West, we have adopted the blindfolded Roman goddess Justitia—Lady Justice—as the symbol of fairness and justice. The American Revolution was an uprising against the unfair taxes imposed by the British. The French Revolution of 1789 was rooted in the widening economic gap between rich and poor, as were Russian revolutions in the beginning of the twentieth century. So, too, were the sweeping Communist movements in China, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa—despite their disastrous consequences. These latter examples illustrate that our relentless quest for equality, fairness, and justice may lead to outcomes that are not always desirable. In fact, the sense of fairness can lead to great friendship, partnership, long-term collaboration, team spirit, and global peace, on one hand, and suspicion, ill will, anger, retaliation, feuds, and mass violence, on the other.
Excerpted from THE FAIRNESS INSTINCT by LIXING SUN. Copyright © 2013 L. Sun. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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