Definition Revised: History's Chameleons

  By Poirot, 2006; Revised 2
Author’s note:

The essay is inspired by another essay, written by famous contemporary Chinese history essayist Yu Qiuyu, titled "The Dark Corners of History." I believe that Yu's purpose in writing his essay was to criticize the Cultural Revolution, but the actual political environment prevented him from doing so explicitly; in my essay, I take Yu's idea to another level and write explicitly about the Cultural Revolution in the end.

While writing the essay, I opened up a thread on AE and consulted members on examples of chameleons in history. I would like to give special thanks to all the AE history buffs that steered me to the right direction, especially Paul, Genghis, Komnenos, Maju, Ulrich von Hutten, Mixcoatl, Zagros, Constantine XI, and Morticia. The essay could not have been completed without the help of sincere AE members.


When we recall historical figures, we usually list conquerors like Alexander and Genghis Khan, butchers like Hitler and Stalin, martyrs like Joan of Arc and Gandhi, thinkers like Aristotle and Voltaire, or even whores like Messalina and Lucretia Borgia. We reward permanence in history to those who conquer, massacre, inspire, innovate, or simply screw a hundred men in a single night. Yet, in the process of identifying prominent historical figures, we omit one important group – the chameleons.
Chameleons often slip away from our grasp. We can quickly label those who massacre a thousand men as butchers, those who heal a thousand souls as saints, and those who defy a thousand daggers as heroes, but we cannot mark chameleons with as much assurance. True to their biological definition, chameleons alter their appearances constantly, and as a result, blend in almost seamlessly with the various shades that history provides. To identify chameleons, we must first be patient, and examine their nature.
The nature of chameleons eluded some of the most brilliant minds in history, but fortunately, also intrigued others, amongst them Anton Chekhov, who exposed and then dissected chameleon-like behavior using his pen. In his story The Chameleon, Chekhov illustrates characteristics of a chameleon through Otchumyelov, a police superintendent who shamelessly oscillates from one position to another to advance his self-interest. Otchumyelov expresses sympathy for a bite victim, but upon discovering that the hound responsible belongs to a general, immediately turns his back, and scolds the victim instead. The police superintendent changes his mind many times in the story, depending on various reports of the hound’s ownership. Otchumyelov’s spineless behavior at first amuses us, but after a couple of chuckles, we should understand that Chekhov’s intentions go beyond simple amusement.
Anton Chekhov
Chekhov’s story exposes a dominant feature of the chameleon – that he switches positions like changing outfits. If one outfit no longer fits, the chameleon simply dons another. Empires, dynasties, and rulers come and go like the seasons, but a chameleon remains constant, unshaken, thriving under different times with different outlooks.
A masterful chameleon would be Feng Dao, who sailed through the tumultuous Five Dynasties Period in China by changing his banners every time a new emperor came to power. When the old emperor fell, Feng Dao enthusiastically opened up gates to the palace for the emperor’s rival, whom he immediately addressed as the new emperor. Feng Dao started his chameleon-like career as prime minister for the Later Tang Dynasty, and, after kowtowing for thirty years to the feet of thirteen different emperors, died with the title of prime minister for the Later Zhou Dynasty. Once, when a fellow minister criticized him for disloyalty, Feng Dao simply laughed, replying that losing one’s dignity was far superior to losing one’s head or estate.
Oftentimes, we confuse chameleons with traitors. Successful chameleons switch from outfit A to outfit B, and, when necessary, revert back to outfit A. Thus, someone who changes outfits, but then decides to stay in the new outfit, does not fit the definition of a chameleon. A chameleon may be a traitor, but a traitor is not necessarily a chameleon. We can label Benedict Arnold as a traitor to the American Revolution, but we cannot instinctively mark him as a chameleon. Once Arnold surrendered to the Redcoats, he remained loyal, serving the British Empire till his death. To an extent, Arnold’s reputation suffered because he failed to master the skills of a chameleon, and as a result, could only be labeled as a despised, yet hapless traitor. Arnold died a penniless man, distrusted by his new masters and hated by his old comrades. His name continues to rot in American history textbooks.
Benedict Arnold
Alcibiades, on the other hand, showed the world that a chameleon, unlike a traitor, not only gains the trust of his new masters, but also revives the trust of his former comrades when necessary. Alcibiades started his career as a prominent Athenian general, but when faced with penalties for violating sacred rituals, he fled, and helped Sparta prevail during the Peloponnesian War. After seducing and impregnating the Spartan queen, he escaped to Persia in fear of persecution, and persuaded the satrap Tissaphernes to adopt policies in favor of Athens. Thus, when Alcibiades returned to Athens years later, the city not only embraced him with laurels, but also handed over to him full command of the army. True to his chameleon-like nature, Alcibiades never hesitated to bite his old masters so that he would gain the trust of his new masters.
Chameleons cast away their morals, changing loyalties without remorse to further their interests. Thus, those who publicly switch from position A to position B while remaining sympathetic to A do not qualify as chameleons. Princess Sophia of the Byzantines, for example, officially converted to Catholicism when she sought refuge in Rome after the fall of Constantinople to Ottomans. Nevertheless, when Pope Paul II sent her to marry Tsar Ivan III and convert the tsar to Catholicism, Sophia’s Orthodox sympathies took precedence, and Russia remained Orthodox. While Princess Sophia does not qualify as a chameleon, Empress Theophano of Byzantium does. Originally the widow of Emperor Romanus II, Theophano prostituted herself to powerful figures within the Byzantine Empire, first by marrying General Nicephorus Phocas against the wishes of Romanus’ former allies, and then by assassinating her new husband in his sleep with the help of another lover, General John Tzimisces. By shamelessly recasting herself to form new alliances, Theophano preserved her crown, at least until the Patriarch of Constantinople, disgusted by her chameleon-like behavior, finally condemned her to death.
Absolute concepts like good and evil do not appeal to chameleons; instead, chameleons pride themselves on being pragmatic, conforming shamelessly to different regimes. Thus, those who switch from A to B to C because their convictions have changed do not count as chameleons. After all, chameleons do not treasure real convictions, for their actions revolve only around the preservation and advancement of their self-interest. Thus, a young self-proclaimed Marxist who becomes moderate and finally a determined conservative after years of disillusionment does not qualify as a chameleon.
A chameleon follows the mold of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, pragmatic and versatile, able to blend in with all factions regardless of right or wrong, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. Talleyrand played different factions like playing cards, trading back and forth between the Bourbons, the French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the royal houses of Austria and Russia like an experienced poker player. In Talleyrand’s words, "the art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence."   Talleyrand foresaw Napoleon’s downfall, and while officially serving the French Empire, sold state secrets to Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Through masterful political maneuverings and realignments, Talleyrand filled his pockets with gold while other more forthright personalities became victims of the guillotine.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
History is filled with tumultuous tides, engulfing and then drowning the willful ones who stand still and resist. Chameleons, on the other hand, simply float along the tides, up and down, back and forth, applying their masterful Darwinian instincts. Chameleons
survive, thrive, and multiply.
As minor court struggles in the past gave way to mass revolutions and full scale wars, the chameleon-like behavior of ministers and princes passed on to communities and even entire populations. Inquisitions and witch trials became the favorite gathering grounds for common folk chameleons who would yell: "Burn that witch!" After a couple of years, the same chameleons would shout: "Hang that inquisitor, that bloody murderer!"
The shouts made by thousands of chameleons echoed through turbulent times like the Cultural Revolution. Granted, not everyone in that era could be labeled a chameleon. Many did find true inspiration from the Little Red Book, and marched the streets enthusiastically, holding enlarged portraits of Mao Zedong and singing the Internationale. Others, under the pressure of possible accusations, reluctantly went along with the charades, hiding their disapproval behind closed doors. Yet, another group of people – including Red Guards, model workers, party officials of all levels, and even professors at Beijing University – decided to exploit the upheaval and advance their status. Although they did not believe in Marxism, they fervently reeducated "counter-revolutionaries", executed landlords, whitewashed monasteries, chanted anti-Western slogans, and recited passages from the Little Red Book. Despite their knowledge of the madness inherent in the daily demonstrations, they encouraged that collective madness, adding fuel to a fire that burnt away millions of lives and decades of social progress.

Mao Zedong
Yet, many of those accountable for unleashing the collective destructive forces during the Cultural Revolution did not receive any punishment. On the contrary, they continued to thrive, in a chameleon-like fashion. While the more naïve members of society continued to wreak havoc, the true chameleons, sensing a turn of events, stopped, and began praising Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations. Thus, while others were jailed or executed for their excesses during the Cultural Revolution, these former Red Guards and model workers cruised through changing times, using available resources and old connections to transform themselves into model business owners.
History often repeats itself, and no one can guarantee that events like the Cultural Revolution will not occur again, or that chameleons will never betray our trust. Chameleons thrived in history, and still thrive today. To protect ourselves from chameleons, we must learn to isolate them from their camouflage.
History is a reflection of the present. By understanding chameleon-like behavior and then identifying that behavior in famous chameleons in history, we can sharpen our senses, and recognize the same behavior in our world. We can then avoid trusting the Otchumyelovs around us, avoid voting for the Otchumyelovs who run for office, and hopefully, expose the Otchumyelovs before they turn our world into a nest of lies and machinations.