A Stronger Loving World

Like everyone else, I didn’t—couldn’t—trust the polls.  Also, the day before the election I finished Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Tradition 1742-2004, and it seemed jejune not to expect the Republicans to do whatever they could to steal the election again.  As Campbell illustrates, few American elections are entirely untainted by fraud, but only the closest are truly susceptible to having their outcomes altered by voter suppression, ballot box stuffing, and bald vote-buying.  Even if the election couldn’t be delivered to the Republicans outright, I was certain that the outcome would fall within the ever-widening "Margin of Litigation," such that legal challenges would prolong the final result for weeks.

Nevertheless, over the final week the more rational part of my brain grasped the objective structural disadvantages working against the Republicans and could posit no plausible scenario for a Republican victory (I had no experience or instinct by which to judge the "Bradley effect," and I regarded it as akin to belief in ghosts; succumbing to one’s fear only gives it more power).  The capacity of the American electorate to be stampeded by Republican fear-mongering had seemed inexhaustible, but I gradually came to tentatively accept that Bush’s "mandate" had run its course by mid-2005, and that the hangover had been painful enough to fill the electorate with resolve, if not remorse.

So, as CNN called Pennsylvania for the Democrats, it seemed possible that we might see a result by the time the polls closed on the West Coast, and I decided I could risk the company of friends.  Ohio had been called for the Democrats by the time I arrived at the party, but I wouldn’t take the champagne out of the fridge until I had heard a concession.  With the giddy Stockholm syndrome of a viewer who cannot walk out of a schlock horror movie, I half-hoped Palin would muscle McCain away from the podium and refuse to concede.  When the phrase "Senator Obama’s victory" passed McCain’s lips, I popped the cork, but I did not feel joy so much as relief.  It was as if I had awakened from a seven-year-long Philip K. Dick fever-dream, escaping from a cartoon world where even the authoritarian thugs cannot help indulging in self-parody just to show that they can get away with it, and returning to a universe where logic and accountability apply.  The world we have regained is not unplagued by fear, malice, or stupidity, but we have remembered that we are also capable of maturity and thoughtfulness, and I drank to that.


Pulp Khazâd

You know what you need?  You need to read this missing scene from the upcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit:

33.FADE UP:33.
Strong is giving a detailed description of all the features on his war hammer "The Smack-5," which he does at the beginning of every episode.
 OFF SCREEN we hear a WOMAN'S VOICE.... 
We're in the great hall of a modest two tower citadel in the Blue Mountains, in the year T.A 2855.  THORIN II'S MOTHER, 350ish, stands in the archway leading into the great hall.  ext to her is a Dwarf dressed in the livery of the House of Durin.  The CAMERA is the perspective of a twenty-five-year old Dwarf.
  Thorin, stop watching puppets a second. We got a special visitor. Now do you remember when I told you your daddy died in a Dol Guldur dungeon? 
      Well this here is Capt. Káin. He was in the Dol Guldur dungeon with Daddy. 
 CAPT. KÁIN steps inside the room toward the little boy and bends down on one knee to bring him even with the boy's eyeline. When Káin speaks, he speaks with a slight Iron Hills accent. 
  Hello, little Dwarf. Boy I sure heard a bunch about you. See, I was a good friend of your Daddy's. We were in that Mirkwood pit of hell over five years together. Hopefully, you'll never have to experience this yourself, but when two Dwarves are in a situation like me and your Daddy were, for as long as we were, you take on certain responsibilities of the other. If it had been me who had not made it, Thráin would be talkin' right now to my son Bofur. But the way it worked out is I'm talkin' to you, Thorin. I got somethin' for ya. 
 The Captain pulls a ring out of his pocket. 
  This ring I got here was the ring of your ancestor Durin III. It is one of the Seven Rings, given to your ancestor in Khazad-dûm by the first smithy ever to make Rings of Power. You see, up until then, people just sunk the power of divine will into jewels. This ring was made by the elflord Celebrimbor of Eregion, a good friend of your ancestor. Then Sauron launched a war against the Elves, which they calledthe War of Elves and Sauron, and Celebrimbor was killed. Your ancestor closed the doors of Khazad-dûm and used the ring to keep the ancient city safe 'til the Númenoreans landed and drove Sauron away. The ring stayed in Khazad-dûm for 3600 years while Númenor fell and Elves and Men again defeated Sauron and brought about the Third Age, and each of your ancestors handed down the ring and the kingdom of Khazad-dûm to his son, all the way to your ancestor Durin VI. Durin VI was the last Dwarf king to be named Durin, because he was killed by an evil power so horrible that they named it Durin's Bane. Durin's son Náin took the ring, but a year later he too was killed by the evil, which they couldn't call Náin's Bane because it was already called Durin's Bane. Náin's son Thráin then took the ring and led the House of Durin east to found the realm of Erebor, and Thráin became the first King Under the Lonely Mountain. Thráin's descendants kept the ring for 600 more years even while they moved north to the Grey Mountains and delved for treasure 'til they were attacked by dragons. Your great-grandfather Dáin I was king when he was killed by a cold-drake, which is a dragon without fire-breath, which I suppose makes it just a large lizard. Anyway, it killed your great-granddad, and so his son, your granddad, Thrór took the ring and his people and went back to Erebor. Thrór kept the ring for 180 more years until the great dragon Smaug, who certainly could breathe fire, attacked Erebor and killed or drove off all the Dwarves who lived there. So now your granddad had the ring but no kingdom, and he wandered the wilderness for 20 years, suffering the scorn of Men and lamenting the loss of all the great Dwarf realms until at last he came to the doors of Khazad-dûm. Your granddad was facing death and he knew it. No Dwarf had any illusions about ever passing those doors and returning alive. So just before he went in, your granddad asked a caravan guard named Nár, a Dwarf he had never before met in his life, to deliver to his infant son who he had never seen in the flesh, his gold ring. Three days later, your grandfather was killed by Azog and the other Orcs infesting Khazad-dûm. Nár carried the news of your grandfather's death to the rest of the Dwarves, who launched a war of revenge, which they called the War of Dwarves and Orcs. That war raged for six years until the Dwarves returned to the doors of Khazad-dûm and met the great Orc host in the Battle of Azanulbizar in which many lives on both sides were lost. At the end of the battle, Azog was dead and the Orcs were scattered, but Durin's Bane still lurked in Khazad-dûm and the Dwarves returned to their other homes. Nár was as good as his word. After the war, he paid a visit to your grandmother, delivering to your infant father, the last of the Seven Rings. This ring. This ring was on your Daddy's finger when he was captured under the eaves of Mirkwood. Now he knew if the Orcs ever saw the ring it'd be confiscated. The way your Daddy looked at it, that ring was your birthright. And he'd be damned if some snouts were gonna put their greasy gray hands on his boy's birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin'. His ass. Five long years, he wore this ring up his ass. Then when he died, he gave me the ring. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little Dwarf, I give the ring to you. 
 Capt. Káin hands the ring to Thorin II. A little hand comes into FRAME to accept it. 
 The 270-year old Thorin Oakenshield is dressed in mining gear: jerkin, boots and gauntlets. He lies on a table catching a few zzzzzz's. Almost as soon as WE CUT to him, he wakes up with a start. Shaken by the bizarre dream, he wipes his sweaty face with his gauntlet. 


Dingy Memorial Fun

While my motivations for reading Twisty are more than partially masochistic, this is the funniest funeral parlor story I’ve ever heard.


The Audacity of Cogency

I rarely listen to political speeches, and I never presume that my reactions to political rhetoric have any relation to the speaker’s wider perception by the public.  I read the text of Obama’s speech yesterday morning, and I watched it several hours later.  From the media/blog reactions to the speech (less than 24 hours later), it doesn’t seem to have changed anyone’s mind, but that’s only one way to evaluate rhetoric.  I doubt that polling people’s reactions would be any more illuminating.

The content of the speech wasn’t dramatically different than anything I’ve heard or read from many similarly lucid people over the last 20 years.  Like many speeches by Obama and unlike those of his contemporaries, it treated a complex subject with the thoughtfulness and candor it deserves, keeping the audience engaged while indulging in very few soundbites or applause lines.  He tried to start a discussion rather than bring it to a conclusion.  Most of all, Obama expected his audience to rise to the level of the conversation instead of stooping to their baser emotions.  Therein lies the risk, more than just grasping the "third rail" of race, for if the last 40 years have demonstrated anything it is that Americans hate being reminded to do their homework.


The Party's Over

Break out Asmodeus’s snowboard, because I find myself in agreement with Antonin Scalia.  The express purpose of I-872 was to destroy the parties’ ability to nominate candidates, and the majority opinion (written by Clarence Thomas) failed to find this unconstitutional.  It remains, however, violently anti-partisan, and will result in elections becoming even more expensive (for those interested in reducing the "demand side" of campaign financing).  It doesn’t even permit the parties to take my preferred option: nominating candidates via conventions.  If the state chooses to hold a primary for a given partisan office, failure to participate in the "top two" primary prevents a candidate from running in the general (bye bye, third parties).

As an inertial Democrat in a massively Democratic county and a frequently Democratic state, I suppose I ought to find the prospect of restricting general election voters to two Democrats attractive.  But if anyone can call themselves a Democrat without consequence, then the parties’ identities will lose whatever meaning they have left, and DINOs will become the rule instead of the exception.


Die Verwandlung

There is, of course, no doubt about which genre of role-playing game we’ll start with...


So Long, And Thanks For All The Polyhedra

I’ve often said I hate going to funerals and memorials.  In my experience, most people don’t know what to say or how to act, but they nevertheless feel they have to say something.  Unless restricted to a very close family or a community with deeply shared beliefs about death, public expressions of grief cannot help but be awkward and maudlin.  Americans in particular have no script for funerals; ours is a youth culture, and the only American ways to die are in a car crash, from a drug overdose, or by an assassin’s bullet.

The death of E. Gary Gygax last week at the age of 69 was rather, um, mundane for men of his generation: an incomplete recovery from an abdominal aneurysm and at least one heart attack.  He smoked and he drank and, if he was anything like most of the followers of the hobby he launched three decades ago, the only muscles he regularly exercised were those in his wrist.

Probably owing to the large overlap between D&D players and computer enthusiasts, the online reaction to Gygax’s death was prolific.  The comment threads contained their fair share of banal sentiment and expressions of "loss," a "sad day," or simply "tears."  Of course, most such mourners had never met Gygax nor read anything he had written in years, and many had long since moved onto different game systems or stopped role-playing altogether.  For me and I imagine for many others of my age, Gygax’s death was not simply another occasion to reminisce about characters and campaigns past or to marvel at how far the influence of D&D nerd culture had spread, but also an opportunity to finally reject the ignominy we believed our adolescence had deserved.

It was hardly surprising to see tributes to Gygax in the nerdier ghettos of the Internet.  What was gradually bewildering—and what transformed my wistful fondness into giddy relief—was the number of mainstream media outlets devoting voluminous and respectful space to Gygax and the impact of the D&D worldview.  Most thrilling were the many non-renunciatory admissions—by people of varying notoriety—of having played D&D at some point in their past, from the middlebrow to the kind of people Alex P. Keaton deified.  It was always known to my generation of players (late 70s and early 80s) that one could play D&D and go on to have a full life, but it was widely thought that one had to disown the hobby to do so.  Most of my crew role-played into and throughout college, but we learned not to advertise it.

With the Triumph of Nerd Culture (most significantly, the rise of MMORPGs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft), I had an intellectual awareness that the younger generations of gamers didn’t carry the same social stigma that we had.  Stephen Colbert became my hero, not only for facing W at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but also for going on Conan O’Brien and bragging about being a D&D nerd.  But until last week I still probably wouldn’t have admitted to new acquaintances how much of my teenage time and energy had been devoted to D&D and other (better but not cooler) games.

The full extent of how much I had internalized this shame burst forth when I read this comment.  My son is an irrepressible performer and fantasist, yet in all his six years I had never even contemplated trying to introduce him to paper role-playing games.  Clearly, I had implicitly decided that playing D&D with one’s children was the social equivalent of Christian Scientists refusing to have their kids vaccinated.  I have since started to survey genres and systems, and I am already planning the precise stage of development to escalate from playing Make-Believe to filling out a character sheet.  It’s hard to qualify the weird mix of embarrassment, relief, and joy that has followed this revelation, and it was wholly occasioned by Gygax’s death and the public reactions thereto.

In sum, for my generation the observance of Gygax’s passing has been less of a funeral and more of a coming out party.  While they have occurred primarily online, I have been humbly grateful for everyone who has publicly embraced their D&D pasts.  I gave my 20-year high school reunion a miss, but I would have certainly attended a local memorial service for Gygax, especially had someone convinced me that there would be girls.


Unbury Stephenson

While I wasn’t quite done with Neal Stephenson, I had resolved to be more circumspect in the future.  However, Boing Boing’s cred is still good with me, and a post last December pointed me to Interface, a collaboration between Stephenson and his uncle published (under the nom de plume "Stephen Bury") between Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.  A comment in the same thread also mentioned the other "Stephen Bury" book, The Cobweb, and I read both in rapid succession.

Interface was the more ambitious of the two books, and it probably suffers thereby.  As it happened, my completion of the book coincided with Super Tuesday, and so I was perhaps more alert than I otherwise might have been to the demoralizing details of our primary "system."  The Cobweb (published in 1996) is much more specifically situated during the run-up to the first (or second) Gulf War and almost tries to be an understated version of Tom Clancy, but sardonically funnier.  Neither book is a dramatic departure from Stephenson’s style: neither provides a satisfactory ending, and both indulge in digressions designed to appeal to the Asperger set.

Spoilerific comments can be found here.


All Saturday's Parties

Clearly, the unprecedently high turnout at the Washington Democratic Presidential Caucus on Saturday was due not to fervent opposition to the Republicans or to the stellar nature of the Democratic candidates but rather to the undetermined nature of the Democratic race on the day of the caucus.  If the delegates had been more unevenly distributed, I doubt even half of the participants would have attended.

Four years ago in one of the bluest districts in the state, 24 voters showed up at my caucus to allot five delegates.  This Saturday, deep in the heart of Darkest Bellevue, 49 voters assembled to allot their five delegates.  I asked the PCO how it had been in her precinct 2004, and she said less than a dozen voters had turned out.

Despite the overcrowding, the organizers ran a smoother operation, and the sign-in and tally went off in short order.  The initial tally:


The PCO invited each candidate’s caucus to put forward a speaker, and the Clinton camp was represented by an older woman wearing a Red Hat festooned with buttons and a T-shirt with a silkscreen of the SF Chronicle front page announcing Clinton’s husband’s 1992 electoral victory.  She spent her minute describing Clinton’s ostensible experience and connections with international leaders explicating the worthless cavils that Clinton issued when she voted to give Dubya a blank check.  A younger woman asked to speak for Obama and she, too, highlighted her candidate’s international perspective.  The voters found both of these testimonials somewhat inapposite and quickly focussed on how each candidate would fare against McCain.  The final tally:


Four delegates were allotted to Obama, one to Clinton.  Amusingly, of the Obama supporters who stayed that long, only three (including the PCO) stepped up; the roster was only filled out when the PCO warned that otherwise the missing delegate would go to Clinton, and Red Hat was still hovering.  Once again, I signed on as an alternate.

Comfortingly, everyone I talked to said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in November, whomever that turns out to be.  It was almost like a party.


So Say We All

The candidate whose positions most closely conformed to mine was John Edwards.  He correctly identified the corruptions of our corporatist government, made combating inequality a centerpiece of his campaign, and was convincingly contrite about his early support for this maddeningly stupid war.  He was the best candidate in a delightfully strong field, and I was sad to see him drop out.

I am previously on record as opposing casual participation in the candidate nomination process.  Nevertheless, "they set up the rules," so if the Washington State Democrats are gonna let a pleb like me participate in their caucus, I won’t surrender the field to others who don’t share my distaste.

The differences between Obama and Clinton are slight when compared to anyone the Republicans would nominate, but they are there.  Most significantly, Clinton’s positions and voting record on the war and the expansion of executive power are dismaying, and the contrast with Obama is stark. As these are key issues for me, I support Obama for the Democratic nomination.  From her statements and actions, it is clear that Clinton’s only objection to the Iraq war is that Richard Holbrooke wasn’t in charge of it.  Furthermore, this was her opinion not only in 2002 but through 2008, as well.  This demonstrates that Clinton shares her husband’s (and her husband’s advisers’) conviction that foreign affairs are abstract concepts that don’t affect elections.  In short, Clinton has an ambitious domestic agenda and is willing to accommodate Republicans and neo-cons in order to enact that agenda, leaving messy international problems to the Best and the Brightest.  I am not, and I doubt Obama is, either (at least not to the degree Clinton is).

And what of that domestic agenda?  Almost all Democrats agree that we have an historic opportunity for genuine health care reform, and I even think Clinton’s proposed plan (at present) is marginally better than Obama’s proposed plan (at present), but not so much as to outweigh other issues (and neither plan is as good as Edwards’s was).

I don’t pretend to any proven ability to judge "electability," but I can say that when he speaks Obama is qualitatively more inspiring than Clinton.  Clinton may know her stuff, but when she speaks she’s preaching to the choir.  Of course, this is another reason why amateur demographers and pollsters like me shouldn’t have a voice in candidate nomination; we should be asked (in the general election) who we like, not who we guess other people would like.

On Saturday, I’ll go to my first caucus in my new precinct, and I’ll let you know how it differed from four years ago. 


Stupid Tuesday

I don’t think people like me—who don’t donate money, time, or influence to a given political party—should have any say in how that party selects its nominees.  As the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, parties are private organizations whose freedom of association (and exclusion) are guaranteed by the First Amendment.  Letting non-members participate in primaries and caucuses prevents the parties from developing any coherent ideology and reduces them to large focus groups.

Voting in general elections is a right guaranteed by the Constitution; helping a party select its nominee is a privilege subject to that party’s whims.  Quid pro quo, Sunshine.


Two If By Sea

While repeatedly requesting and failing to receive Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from Netflix, I had the opportunity this month to receive and view the entire Victory at Sea series.  I had listened to my father’s LPs of the soundtrack in my youth, but its decade of syndication had elapsed long before I started haunting late afternoon television.

As a documentary, it had little impact out here at the beginning of the 21st century; much of the footage was already familiar to me, and the narration was breathy and pre-ironic.  The producers were limited to Anglo-American film library plus what they captured from the Axis; the sparse Soviet film contribution consisted mainly of an obviously-reconstructed depiction of the liberation of Sevastopol, complete with the gallant proletarian soldiers wearing full dress medals into battle with the Fascist horde.

What was tremendously clear is how deeply the series informed a generation of Americans in their view of The Best War Ever.  The main theme, of course, was The Perils of Appeasement, as the British and French foolishly hesitated before throwing another generation into the meat grinder.  British fortitude and American industry get the most exposure; donnybrooks like Stalingrad and Kursk are only mentioned as showcases for Lend-Lease.  The nettlesome complications of collaboration under Axis occupation are given short shrift, as was the entire "China Incident."

In the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn’t much room in the media landscape for an alternative to NBC, for a more nuanced perspective of the Second World War.  Consequently, the Baby Boom generation was ill-equipped for a decade of counter-insurgency in Indochina.  These days, with our proliferating media options, we would never be so hobbled.