Chatham House Rule

Chatham House, or The Royal Institute for International Affairs, is a non-government global think-tank, based in London, whose mission is to analyse and promote the understanding of international issues and current affairs.

The Chatham House Rule, originated in June 1927 and outlines that anyone who attends a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, be free to use information from the discussion, but not be allowed to reveal who made any comment.

It is designed to increase openness of discussion.

Chatham House

I attended a talk recently at Chatham House, on “Preventing Genocide” and while nothing inflammatory requiring protection of the Chatham House Rule was said from the panel of speakers, one can easily see how international diplomacy and political relations can be bound by many competing tensions:  on the one hand one can know that leaders,  governments or a regime may inflict violence upon their own people and yet one must stay out of the affairs of other nations and not meddle.

In many cases, international agencies and consortia such as the UN can only seek to entreat leaders to peaceful solutions and if ignored, place pressure on their leadership with trade embargos, vetos and exclusions from community. Even this is seen to be imperialistic and meddling. Military intervention is the line of last resort.

The tension between the Chatham House Rule to protect the freedom of opinion and speech and the need for political restraint and political correctness in the search for international peace, binds people who have seen and heard things too horrible for humans to consider, together.


This tension reminds me of another involving international relations.

The sweeping back drop of history, war, politics and economics have long been the canvas upon which epic narrative plays out. The Iliad is set against the events of the Trojan War, Herodotus recounts the Graeco-Persian wars and many of Shakespeare’s greatest works Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Henry V, Macbeth feature monarchs and their wars.  Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace recounts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and  of course countless stories of the Great War and Second World War abound.

A favourite, The English Patient, recounts the North African/Italian Campaigns of World War II.


The story is asynchronous, moving between the events of the Second World War on the Italian front, and to events just prior to war among a British cartography group mapping the North African desert.

The ‘English Patient’ is an unrecognisably burnt man cared for by a Canadian nurse in an abandoned Italian villa and only carrying with him a tattered version of Herodotus’ ‘Histories.’ He tells Hana, his nurse, between morphine injections, the the story of his life.

He was an explorer and member of a British cartography group exploring the North African desert where he fell in love with Katherine Clifton, the wife of Geoffrey Clifton a team mate. Surrounded by sites of ancient significant including an eerie Cave of Swimmers, the ‘English Patient’ walks in the footsteps of characters of myth and legend.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849

The English Patient, we learn is an Austro-Hungarian Count, Laszlo de Almasy.  One evening in the desert before a campfire, Katherine recounts the doomed tale of King of Gyges who looks upon the nakedness of the wife of Candaules, the King of Lydia, and who later kills the king and usurps the throne.

The story taken from Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ forebodes the tragedy of Laszlo and Katherine’s love affair and giving it an epic fatality.

The Gyges story is set within the narrative by Herodotus to establish reason for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and the later rise of the Persian Empire. Similarly, Almasy and Katherine’s love affair can only end badly.  Katherine cuts their love affair short when she fears her husband will lose his mind should he find out. As war breaks out, Almasy finds Hungary on the wrong side of geo-political lines, in alliance with Nazi Germany, while he himself supports the British.


The expedition breaks up with the coming war and Geoffrey offers to return Almásy to Cairo on his plane. However, the small bi-plane crashes in the desert killing Geoffrey and badly injuring Katherine.  Almásy leaves her in the Cave of Swimmers and treks for three days to British controlled El Taj for help.  However, when he arrives, he is detained as a spy because of his name, despite telling them about Katharine’s predicament.

In grief and utter desperation, he trades confidential maps of the desert with German spies in exchange for release and he returns to retrieve Katherine’s body from the cave.  Later team leader Maddock commits suicide thinking that Almasy all a long was a Hungarian spy.

It is while flying back that he is shot down over the desert, leaving him burned and unrecognisable in a British field hospital and later cared for by Hana.

The English Patient

What makes war, the complex interplay of history, geography, politics and economics both so tragic and yet a canvas for the epic events of great narrative? Tension is the fuel of stories, and the deeper the tension, the greater the epic.

Perhaps, just as international relations needs the twin poles of political correctness and moderation to work towards peace, but also requires The Chatham House Rule to allow the freedom of speech without recourse, so too narrative needs the twin fuels of epic levels of tension with the freedom to speak of the wonder and poetry that moves there as humans live and love within a crucible of life.

Ray Dalio – Principles

Ray Dalio, is an American billionaire, hedge fund manager, philanthropist and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. He is listed in Bloomberg in 2018 as one of the world’s 100 wealthiest people alive.

His 2011, he self-published a book, Principles, a New York Times best seller which outlines his logic and personal philosophy for investments and corporate management and is based on a lifetime of observation, analysis and practical application.

In Principles, Dalio speaks of why he feels it is important to pass on the accumulated knowledge of his life by alluding to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

hero journey

Dalio points out that in Campbells analysis, heroes do not begin as heroes, they became them.  The hero undertakes trials, battles, temptations, successes and failures; they are assisted by allies and mentors and learn how to fight their enemies. They overcome their fear of fighting by the determination they have to achieve what they want and they achieve their special powers from battles they endures and from gifts received such as advice from others.

Heroes always experience one very big failure – an abyss or a belly of the whale experience – that tests their resilience to come back and fight smarter. They undergo a metamorphosis, and through this, they lose their fear. The heroes biggest reward however is the boon – the special knowledge of how to succeed, which upon returning home they are able to pass on to others.


In Ray’s analogy, everyone is a hero. Everyone who endures the battle and is willing to learn the lessons of the journey and the battle and to bring home, as he does so well, the boon of experience to pass on to others.

The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:


The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.


Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.


Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

IliadThe Iliad

Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

Wonder Woman

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.


Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.


When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.


Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at

An Alien Shore

… stories have shapes … and … the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.

~ Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is well known for his essays on the common tropes of stories and their meanings. Like a museum of cultural artefacts, popular and enduring narratives reveal much about a nation’s collective identity.


Vonnegut, for example, likens the Christian Biblical story to the Cinderella narrative, a narrative so popular it is repeated each generation in one form or another – Think Oliver Twist, Annie, Pretty Woman and so forth. The once impoverished protagonist is beloved of the prince and not only overcomes oppression and ignobility, but arises from the ashes to ascend into the heights of bliss as beloved and co-heir to the kingdom.

The Jewish scriptures on the other hand tell more a protracted tale of survival through suffering, wandering and woe, in the vein of Homer’s Odysseus. Hope and faith which endure through darkness is the theme of Jewish narrative and is perhaps best exampled in the short narrative of Job.

In the Book of Job, the mortal man beset with many ills, is faced with the realisation that humanity has one bitter end – death. This death is part of a catch-22 deal that has humanity cornered. ‘A man [sic] is born to mischief as the sparks fly up,’ [Job 5:7] and while he, Job, is as moral a man as has ever lived, no morality is moral enough to reach perfection. His friends urge penance and he rejects this claiming he has already lived a moral life and instead turns upon God with an audacious demand for an account to humanity.


What a curious and unpious narrative to mark a nations identity?! How does it nuance our understanding of the greater canon of scripture?

Perhaps examining other popular and enduring stories will help us.

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all. Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

This narrative is a hero-quest and the protagonist crosses into the alien and unfamiliar world of their sworn enemies. Romeo and Juliet follows a similar trajectory. When Romeo enters his enemies house in disguise, he falls for their daughter. They pursue an elicit love affair that ends with an elopement, and while their love is doomed, the tragedy of these two lovers draws the warring families into peace talks.


It is a powerful theme. Reconciliation is found when one learns to love ones enemies by living in their world and seeing the battle from their vantage point. Even if their quest may be doomed, this very action can bring an end to the conflict that has divided the two worlds.

This story of Job is so simple and so profound; it is the fulcrum of the greater narrative, the link between Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Job, the mouthpiece of the Hebrew people, calls God to provide a personal account for the inevitable sufferings of humanity, and the New Testament supplies the response.

The New Testament recounts the arrival of the author of the story, into the story. This character, lands on the alien shore and befriends the inhabitants of this world. Here he  falls in love with them and taking up arms against the enemy forces, the enemy of death, the character perishes in his battle for their freedoms. While the story is tragic, despite his death,  he takes down the enemy – death itself – and so does what no man has done before, returns life to the ailing population.

Whether the Bible is a Cinderella story, a Pocahontas story, an Avatar story, or another hero-journey, it is clear that the repeated motifs of the popular stories we love and retell, resonate deeply with human identity and our search for meaning, destiny and purpose.

Why Should You Read ‘Macbeth’?

There’s a play so powerful that an old superstition says its name should never be uttered in a theater. A play that begins with witchcraft and ends with a bloody, severed head. A play filled with riddles, prophecies, nightmare visions, and lots of brutal murder. But is it really all that good?

Brendan Pelsue and TED-Ed, explain why you should read (or revisit) “Macbeth.”