“The first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was the man who unified China, and whose dynasty gave the country its European name (Qin is pronounced ‘chin’). He was a radical mix of unbalanced and cruel megalomania and yet possessed a profound understanding of his times.” — J.M. Roberts, historian
History takes both great and terrible leaders and makes them into movies. If you wait long enough, you won’t have to read the book.
Great leaders like Churchill are portrayed by great actors like John Lithgow in The Crown; mediocrities like Neville Chamberlain aren’t so interesting, and they either get written out of the script or are deservedly forgotten (although he was wonderfully played by Ronald Pickup in Darkest Hour); terrible tyrants like Hitler are portrayed as farces by the likes of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. No self-respecting actor can bear to play them straight (okay, one exception, Bruno Ganz, killed it in Downfall).
So does that mean we have to content ourselves with a Hollywood reenactment? It so happens there is a better way called the “Cantor Test,” named after Norman F. Cantor, a professor of Medieval Civ professor at SUNY Binghamton (my alma mater) and NYU. Cantor grew tired of the intellectual moralizing (neo-Marxists with tenure drove him crazy) that was little more than political bias cloaked as historiography. He created a values driven algorithm that added back the humanity and got rid of partisan nonsense.
Revolutions aren’t politics and they do not have to end up as wars. Today, there are proxy wars in which the real combatants never fire a shot. The true metric of a revolution is a major shift in worldview, defined as a party not in control taking power away from a party in control.
Due to the chaotic way they unfold, leaders of revolutions all seem like radicals, and a manifestation of evil to the opposition. But some conduct their mission with a sense of proportion, like Nelson Mandela. The bad ones justify mindless atrocity and never look back, and they forget time is the enemy of immorality, as is Hollywood.
Professor Cantor’s starting point when he judged a leader was to ask was there a moral core? That sounds subjective, but on examination it’s not. Cantor placed his trust in goals, not outcomes. He always asked, was self-enrichment or power the motive? Half of all disruptions fail this standard.
His second point was to ask if the methods merited the struggle? If atrocities happened, and maybe they had to, was discretion used? Most of the horrific episodes the world has experienced flunk this test. The lesson is let’s talk more. If that doesn’t work, change the players.
Thirdly, he would weigh the facts against the zeitgeist (no absolutism for Norman).
Finally, his fourth and most important, Cantor called the either/or factor, asked whether a change in leaders could produce a better outcome? It is the most difficult test because it is so hypothetical. For example, we can safely say in Hitler’s case any other leader would have had a better outcome, in George Washington’s, unlikely.
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