The Romance of the 196 Kingdoms: If you don’t like what bad ISIS is doing, then help us build good ISIS.

Sometime after college, I stumbled on the fact that out of thousands of years of literature, there were four novels that the Chinese people had picked out as the greats. Think about how insane that is. One of the greatest cultures in the world has picked four novels as the best stories its culture has ever produced and I’d never heard of them. Are there people in China who only find out about the Iliad, the Odyssey and Shakespeare after college? Probably. For a supposedly global society, humanity still approaches education in a remarkably nationalistic way.

And that’s a tragedy because humans can’t spot patterns when they only have one data point. If all you’ve ever known is your one national culture, then it’s way harder for you to see the broad patterns of human behavior and human societies. It’s also a tragedy because I got assigned to read Pride and Prejudice…twice. Oh, Mr. Darcy!

Pride and Prejudice is great and whatever but it takes a special kind of clueless to assign Pride and Prejudice at an all boys boarding school…twice. I’m sorry but Mr. Darcy just doesn’t do it for me. You know what does do it for me? The Romance of The Three Kingdoms. Any novel so epic and action-packed that it inspires movies and video games that look like this is exactly what you should be assigning to young men!

To be clear, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms doesn’t read as easily as The Hunger Games. It reads more like The Odyssey or The Iliad. But like The Odyssey and The Iliad the story and the themes are so epic and timeless that they’re worth picking apart. Moreover, the experience of Chinese history is now what is playing out on a global scale. Just take a look at the opening line of The Romance of The Three Kingdoms:

The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.


In one line, the novel sets up the recurring pattern of Chinese history. An Empire forms that unites China under a single banner. However, over time, the Imperial Dynasty weakens. Emperors become lazy, complacent and self-indulgent. Corruption sets in. Self-interested courtiers or eunuchs co-opt power for themselves. And the empire divides into warring states. These states war until someone comes along and unites them to begin the process all over again.

One of the pivotal scenes in The Romance of The Three Kingdoms is the Oath of the Peach Garden. With the Kingdom in disarray, three men from different families swear an oath that although their “surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered.” The three brothers then devote their lives to bringing peace and prosperity to the Kingdom.

Of all the parts in The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, it was The Oath of the Peach Garden that spoke to me most. We live in a world where many are troubled and endangered. There is no shortage of charities. There is no shortage of people who devote the people around them through their jobs or in their personal lives. And yet, The Oath of the Peach Garden isn’t about paying it forward or tithing or opening the door for a stranger although all these things matter. The Oath of the Peach Garden isn’t about merely helping. It’s about uniting warring factions in a shared myth. I believe the time has come for a new myth. One that unites humanity under a single banner. It’s time to forge a tribe called human.

Living in the shadow of World War II, the West is acutely aware of the problems of such myths. Europe and North America have looked on with horror as fascism and communism swept the globe. Rightly so. Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler and many other dictators wrought unimaginable damage on their societies. And yet, in the same period, the West has been gripped by similar myths that were sometimes constructive and sometimes destructive. The American dream and capitalism’s faith in the “Invisible Hand.” Humans are creatures of myth. We have always told stories about ourselves, each other and the workings of the world. Our progress rests not on escaping human nature but on harnessing it. Humans can’t help telling stories; they can tell stories that better fit reality. And that is something we’ve been doing for a very, very long time. And some of the most powerful stories are the ones about what our tribe is.

Today, humanity has 196 nation states. It has countless religions and sects within those religions. There are political parties. People affiliate themselves with sports teams, high schools and colleges, people of shared interests. Humans form groups and they constantly form rival groups. Creating a singular tribe called human isn’t realistic. It also wouldn’t be desirable. It would encourage a monotony of thought that would stifle innovation, creativity and make life frightfully boring. Instead, the best we can hope for is to do what my Irish friend, Marie O’Reilly, described as “Human First.” On the off chance that Irish football was ever good enough to seriously threaten the Dutch football team, Marie and I would absolutely engage in a playful, good-natured rivalry. However, the central aspect of our identity is our shared humanity and it is that identity that inspires empathy, a desire to talk out differences and to band together when either of us is threatened.

This has been done before. This is not humanity’s first rodeo.

Since I’m currently sitting in America, let’s take the example of the USA. You start with thirteen colonies filled with people whose primary identities are with Massachussets, Quaker or Cherokee. Over the last quarter of a millennium, people from all over the world have come to take on a new identity of “American.” Sometimes that identity breaks down as it did during the Civil War. Sometimes there are disagreements as to what that identity means as 2016 revealed. But what The Romance of The Three Kingdoms reminds us is that the collapse of a large state is not something you want to live through. At least, I don’t. We now live in a global society whether we like it or not. What do we do about that? What’s clear is that we can’t keep going as we are.

Today, humanity has 196 nation states operating at various levels of stability and functionality. Some work pretty well like Denmark. Some are so dysfunctional like Somalia that they might as well be regarded as not even being states at all. And that dysfunctionality creates problems for all of us. According to the Global Campaign for Education, there are 70 million children worldwide who aren’t getting any kind of education. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. And you can bet that those minds won’t go to waste. Someone will find a use for them.

That’s Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS. Like countless drug traffickers, pimps, warlords and other cult leaders, he is amazing at finding young minds that society has wasted and turning them to his use. Minds never get wasted. They either get channeled towards solving society’s problems or creating them. Humanity now has 7 billion members. All those minds won’t be wasted. The question is to what end will they be used.

ISIS’ success rests on the failure of the rest of humanity to provide a more compelling alternative. It is not enough to say that ISIS is bad. You must outcompete it. As Amos Oz wrote:

“But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.”

And so, who will do that? Who will provide a better identity and sense of community to the people of the world? Well, as Rabbi Hillel said:

We can wait for someone to step up. We can wait for the perfect time. And yet, at a certain point, you realize that that’s what everyone else is doing. They’re waiting for someone else to step forward. And so, rather than wait, you step up. And so, you take The Oath of the Peach Garden and dedicate your life to “offering a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one” to the people of the world. And so, here it is: Human First.

Why should I deny myself the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel just because I do not practice Judaism? I have Dutch and American citizenship. Is it treachery for me to read the Four Great Novels of Classical Chinese Literature? Or is it patriotism? Won’t I be a better ambassador for my countries if I understand the greatest works of other cultures? The Dutch are famous the world over for knowing other people’s languages. Americans are famous the world over for knowing no one else’s language. Which reputation serves a country better? No matter where you started off culturally, you are doing a service neither to yourself nor to your country by only knowing your own culture. Narrow-mindedness is an unappealing trait in every culture. However, be advised. The more you learn about other cultures the more your prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness will fall away.

The inevitable result of exposure to other cultures is to see not only their good points and their bad points but also to see the shared humanity that lies beneath culture.

And so, a stand-up comedian named Bryan Callen and a tutor named Hunter Maats are officially founding good ISIS. Like bad ISIS, we use social media to recruit and we operate across national borders. Where bad ISIS focuses on jihad (waging war on others), good ISIS focused on ijtihad (struggle with our own prejudices and ignorance). Where ISIS makes bombs, we make knowledge bombs.

Where ISIS makes war, we make memes and blogposts and videos and podcasts. And where ISIS propagates a narrow-minded view of Islam, we propagate Mixed Mental Arts. Just like Mixed Martial Arts, we aim to evolve a thinking style that brings together the best of every time and place to create the best cultural software the world has ever seen. And in so doing, we are inspired not just by The Romance of The Three Kingdoms and Rabbi Hillel and Amos Oz and the transnational social media strategy of ISIS but by that great Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun.

Like us, Ibn Khaldun lived in interesting times. Times of great tumult and social change. And as he moved around the world, he saw certain key patterns in human affairs. And one of the most important ideas in his writing is the idea of asabiyyah or social glue. Ibn Khaldun saw that societies are held together by a kind of social glue and that when that asabiyyah weakens the society falls apart. The three brothers in The Romance of The Three Kingdoms would have understood this perfectly. The Oath of The Peach Garden was their commitment to strengthen the asabiyyah of the Han Dynasty. A global age requires a new identity. It requires new stories and myths. It requires drawing together all the pieces of human history and all the cultures of the world to make something more beautiful than what existed before. It requires us to make kintsugi.

The Japanese know that shattered pieces can be more beautiful when the cracks are filled in with gold. And so it is with the cultures of the world. When you understand that the writings of Ibn Khaldun on asabiyyah deal with the selfsame problem as that in The Romance of The Three Kingdoms both become richer experiences. When you understand that Amos Oz is saying that in the marketplace of ideas, you win not by criticizing but by outcompeting then you understand that it’s on you to build something better. And when you understand how to think critically, you can understand how to learn from what ISIS gets right in terms of strategy and use its own best practices to win hearts and minds away from it. As JFK said in his speech committing the United States to landing a moon by the end of the decade, we do this not because these goals are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

Did the three brothers know how they would restore order to China? No. Did Kennedy on that day know how America would send a man to the moon? No. Many of the alloys needed to send a man to the moon had not yet been invented. And so, today, I cannot tell you all the answers to how we will solve these problems. I’m not supposed to be able to. The world is too complicated for any one person to understand. I can only lay out a vision. I can raise a flag. And I can make a personal commitment. I can take The Oath of the Peach Garden. Because the challenge may have changed its shape…but it has always been the same challenge. Listen to Kennedy define the challenge of the 60’s and you will hear the challenge of the three brothers of Han Dynasty China, of Ibn Khaldun in the Middle Ages and of our own modern age. The challenge and the opportunity has always been us to unleash the best in each of us.

In Rocket Men, Craig Nelson quotes Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins:

“People, instead of saying, ‘Well, you Americans did it!,’ everywhere, they said ‘We did it!’ We, humankind, we the human race, we, people, did it! The warmth of shared experience was remarkable given the origins of the space race in an atmosphere of fear and belligerence.”

The challenge we now face is not one that can be done only by engineers and test pilots and support staff working at the Kennedy Space Center. It is one that must be done by all of us. It is a challenge of winning hearts and minds.

Katie O’Brien, whom I co-wrote The Straight-A Conspiracy with, describes this moment in history as humanity’s first family dinner. For thousands of years, we’ve all lived in our little corners of the world. Now, all the people of the world have been shoved together in a giant global conversation. We travel. We connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. And we all owe our prosperity or poverty to a system of interconnected global trade. We can no longer externalize how our actions affect people half a world away. The human family is stuck with each other. Now, we have to talk things out to figure out better ways of working together.

In Kennedy’s speech, he describes the moon as an environment whose “hazards are hostile to us all.” There is nothing that draws humanity together like the challenge of facing an unknown environment. A shared challenge forces us to work through our differences. We now find ourselves in a technological, social and cultural environment that is defined by uncertainty. We are all in Terra Incognita. What does a global society look like? How do build a society in which whole industries are disrupted out of existence overnight and millions can find that their skills suddenly have no commercial value? One thing is certain, we need not worry about those minds going to waste. Someone will always find a use for them.

Yellow Turbans. Black Turbans. Bloods. Crips. Cult leaders. Warlords. Pimps. There will always be people who are more than willing to turn lost, young people to their own personal profit. They will indoctrinate and tell people what to think. Freedom and the wisdom of the crowds rests not on indoctrination. It rests on education. It rests on teaching people how to think for themselves. That is what Mixed Mental Arts is all about.

We cannot wait for our educational systems to figure this out. We cannot wait for them to teach the stories of other cultures. And we cannot wait for the 70 million children worldwide who currently get no education to grow up. Bad ISIS uses social media to spread ignorance, hate and prejudice without any respect for borders. Good ISIS uses social media to spread wisdom, love for one’s fellow man and understanding without any respect for borders. Bad ISIS takes itself very seriously. Good ISIS knows how ridiculous it is for any human to act like they know it all in an age when there are 130 million books, tens of millions of scientific articles and terabytes of data. It’s not a problem any of us can figure out alone. Our faith is that when humans band together there’s no environment we can’t figure out.

We joke that while bad ISIS is trying to build the Caliphate, since Mixed Mental Arts was co-founded by the comedian Bryan Callen we are building the Callenphate. We convert racist uncles by taking them out for delicious food from cultures they think are worthless. We spread the stories of other cultures within our own. We make kintsugi that reveal the same patterns occurring across human societies. We approach culture like Bruce Lee.

Humanity split up and spread out of Africa a very, very long time ago. We have long been divided. Now, we have the chance to unite.

The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.


    1. Hunter "Toto" Maats Post author Reply

      Thanks so much, Gary! If I keep evolving, maybe one day I’ll figure out this blogging thing 😉

  1. James Reply

    I’m signed up and all in. I’m listing to the book Tribe, now and feel as if I have found mine.
    Thanks dude. Appreciate you guys.

    1. Hunter "Toto" Maats Post author Reply

      James! I feel exactly the same way. It’s so gratifying to finally be a part of a community of so many genuinely interested and curious people.

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