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The Politics of Forged in Fire

The TV reality show “Forged in Fire” models a great future society.

This reality TV show pits four craftsmen (and a few craftswomen) making quality knives from raw steel. The craftsmen are all experienced bladesmiths, somehow proving beforehand they are worthy of being on the show. Seldom does the show proffer rookies in knifemaking.

The four bladesmiths are given the same challenge. But each show is different: a different kind of knife to make, specific forging technique to use, or a different kind of steel to use. The bladesmiths must use their experience to adapt to the particular challenge of their particular contest. No two episodes have the same challenge.

There are three timed rounds to the contest. The first round is about heating and forming steel to a knife-like shape within parameters—and within three hours. At the end of this “forging” round, the judges look at the knives. The worst knife and its bladesmith are eliminated from the contest. The second round involves grinding and sharpening of the steel, plus adding a functional handle to the knife. After another three hours, time is called. The knives are put to strenuous tests by the judges, by beating the knife, then trying to make it cut. The worst-performing knife and its bladesmith are eliminated.

The last round requires a much bigger knife (actually, more likely a sword) to be built at the “home forge” of the two remaining bladesmiths. They are given five days to build this weapon. Then they return to the studio, where the judges perform several tests to determine the quality of their work. The better weapon wins the contest—and a $10,000 prize.

On a basic level, this is a fantastic contest. The skills these craftsmen have acquired is amazing, and one can feel the passion they have for their craft. The bladesmiths need to understand steel: how to select it, how to shape it, how to strengthen it, and how to sharpen it. Each knife/sword requires bladesmiths to make trade-offs to produce the best qualities for their weapon. The TV producers are great at getting the bladesmiths to speak their minds as they overcome their own particular challenges to make a high- quality knife or sword.

On a higher level, Forged in Fire is a model for how politics should be conducted. 

There is a high degree of honor among the bladesmiths. While Forged in Fire is a competition, bladesmiths will help each other out a little. I suspect if they had more time, they would help each other out a lot. For some episodes, the producers seem to set up the contest for some kind of conflict. But that conflict never materializes; the bladesmiths seem to ignore the incentive to not get along.

And when a bladesmith is eliminated from the contest, he takes full responsibility for his loss. There is no blame cast outward. Viewers often hear losing bladesmiths saying: “If only I had done things this way.”

There is no trash talking nor back-stabbing and manipulating or denigrating. The bladesmiths congratulate each other when their opponent’s weapon performs well in a test. They enjoy the bond of friendship forged on the show. The friendliness in this competitive field is so amazing!

The three judges are critical to the success of this reality show. Two of the judges have personalities for the TV camera. One does not. But even when this third judge speaks, he is still very much listened to. His wooden personality is not a detriment to the show.

When eliminating a bladesmith, the judges acknowledge the good things the bladesmith has done in the previous round. There is little belittlement of anyone who seriously tried to apply their skills to a difficult challenge. Each bladesmith believes he has learned something important to improve his craft by being on the show.

What if we took the Forged in Fire attitude into government? Here is my analysis:

1. Only the competent players would be given a shot at being in government. They have the competence because they have practiced a lot and proven their skills.

2. The players recognize that there is more than one way to solve a problem. To elevate themselves, they need not denigrate the way of another player.

3. The players’ works speak louder than their words.

4. The players recognize that whatever approach and techniques they employ in the contest, failure is still a possibility — despite their best efforts and knowledge. I think that trait is called “humility.”

5. The players have respect for the judges’ decision.

6. And judges are competent to be judges, so that is why the respect is given.

So how are these six Forged in Fire traits being employed in our current system of government?

If “not so well,” should we not try to emulate them in government?

If “yes we should,” what are the chances that we can bring these traits into western democracy? Especially the American version?

If western democracy cannot deliver these traits, then does it not make sense to consider an alternative system of governance?

Unlike most other reality shows, Forged in Fire is showing the better side of humanity. And we should learn how to bring that better side into governance.

Published on Medium 2020

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