This gallery contains 4 photos.
Autumn pics are usually so panoramic. Neat to see the close-up focus.
This gallery contains 4 photos.
Autumn pics are usually so panoramic. Neat to see the close-up focus.
Okay, so by now everyone knows, right? Donald Trump has recently said he wants to change the Fourteenth Amendment so as to eliminate birthright citizenship, and he wants to do it without another amendment. The problem according to the idiot in the White House is that some scholars (he assures us) say the prevailing interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment is just wrong. Changing it, according to this view, is not a case of rewriting the rules so much as it is a case of just changing the way we interpret them. Therefore, the Cheeto and its enablers think he can do this with just an executive order. Nevermind that Obama’s use of executive orders was proof positive that he himself was a demon from a special Muslim Hell sent to personally devour the Constitution right along with all the babies and pizzas ever served in Tea Party Hell, Donald Trump is thinking he’s just gonna do it.
And the deplorables sing, doot, doot doot, da doot, doot doot doot…
Some folks tell me that this is a distraction from bomb scares and right wing shooters, or maybe some other legal decision that Donald is going to quietly sign into being while we stand aghast at the orange Hell that has become of our sweet country, but then again, maybe some of those are distractions from this, or maybe someone is distracting us from a election. I dunno. I give up on trying to sort out what’s supposed to be a distraction from what. The problem with all the distraction talk is it assumes that Donald and the deplorables are focused enough to have clear priorities in the first place. That notion is about as plausible as a degree from Trump University.
But all of this does raise an interesting question; what is the case for saying the 14th Amendment doesn’t actually make the children of foreign nationals into U.S. citizens if they born on U.S. soil?
Let’s start with the text itself. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads as follows:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The first line contains the case for birthright citizenship, and that case is commonly accepted by most people with any professional responsibility to handle such matters or argue them in a courtroom.
So, why would anyone think they are wrong?
The quick and dirty version of this argument is to simply say that this doesn’t apply to foreigners, because they are loyal to another country and another set of laws, so they aren’t subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S.
The quick and dirty version of this argument is also very stupid, but yes, I have met people who make precisely that argument, as stated above, and without adding anything else to the argument.
Anyway, the quick and dirty response to the quick and dirty version of this argument is to point out that foreign nationals, undocumented immigrants, modern secessionists, and full-on fugitives from the law are all subject to U.S. law whether they like it or not. If that’s just a matter of opinion, it’s an opinion likely shared by those with the power to make it so.
The quick and dirtier argument is that the 14th Amendment was written to protect the freedman from Jim Crow laws passed in the wake of the civil war. — You know what, let’s all just take a moment here to appreciate the fact that those now reminding us of this fact as a means of denying citizenship to Latinos contain a lot of the same neo-Confederates whose sympathies clearly aren’t with those recently freed slaves anyway, …or their descendants. The 14th Amendment has always been a great big thorn in the side of the bigots who want to resurrect the old South. There is a clear pattern here, and it sure as Hell isn’t defined by careful attention to historical facts and details of Constitutional law. — Anyway, the point in this quick and dirtier version of the argument against birthright citizenship is that the law was always mean to protect a specific class of people, newly freed slaves, and that our nation’s present habit of applying it to just about anyone born in our country extends the application of that law beyond its original purpose.
And here, history gobbles up law. Context eats text, and the whole nation let’s out a big fat bigoted burp in celebration.
…if Donnie and the deplorables get their way anyway.
The problem here is that the context doesn’t in itself elucidate the text, it just gobbles it up. (Yep, I’m sticking with that imagery.) If you go back up and read the text above, it simply doesn’t say; “Hey southerners, black people are citizens, so stop treating them like shit!” No, it doesn’t. Instead, it presents us with a perfectly general principle, and that principle is not limited in scope to the specific historical context in which it was written. Those who wrote it could well have defined its scope more narrowly if they wanted to. They didn’t.
Far from helping us to understand the meaning of the text, this pseudo-historicism invites us to ignore the text on account of an historical factoid.
So, the quick and dirtier argument is also stupid, but I really must insist, I have met people who have made precisely this argument, without adding anything else to it. It’s unimpressive. It really isn’t all that clear that Donald Trump or the vast majority of his supporters have anything more going for them than this simple sleight-of-hand gimmick, not withstanding that we can all see them palming the cards even as they congratulate themselves on a winning hand.
But is there more to it?
Yeah, well, kinda. If you aren’t too particular, there is an argument to be made that goes a little beyond this kind of idiocy. It takes us back to the clause “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Some folks would have us believe that there is specific reason to think this clause was not intended by those who wrote it, debated it, and voted on it to apply to foreign nationals. If that’s the case, they maintain, the children of those nationals would not be made citizens by simple birth here in the U.S.
What is that reason?
Well it isn’t a question of legal versus illegal immigration, because America wasn’t really trying to control immigration at that point in our history. So, don’t let any deplorables take you down that dumb-ass dead-end either.
No, the argument rests on the possibility that the framers, so to speak, of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically said that its protections did not apply to non-nationals. If we can find people involved in writing the law who said it shouldn’t apply to foreign nationals, so the argument goes, then we should assume that the phrase invoking jurisdiction was always meant to exclude them. The Supreme Court has already ruled that children of legal immigrants are entitled to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment, and no doubt the anti-birthers consider that a mistake, but more importantly, they will insist the court has never applied this standard to the children of illegal immigrants.
…which once again, is a distinction that wasn’t made when the 14th Amendment was drafted and ratified.
That really should be QED right there, but these are strange days indeed, so I guess we’ll have to go a couple extra rounds on the topic.
One of the most idiotic versions of this argument comes from a misquoting of the principle author of the 14th Amendment Senator Jacob Howard who stated:
…[E]very person born within the limits of the United State, and subject to their jurisdiction, is by virtue of natural law and national law a citizen of the United States. This will not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the government of the United States, but will include every other class of person
Those using this passage to argue against birthright citizenship typically make one minor alteration the text. They add an ‘or’ before the clause saying “who belong to the families of ambassadors…” This transforms the original text, taking what is in effect an elaboration on a single concept and makes it something of a list. The ambassadors become one more class of people in addition to aliens, whereas the original text is simply spelling out the same concept with a variety of different phrases. Michael Anton, a former aid in the Trump administration pulled this stunt. He still insists that the ‘or’ just spells out the actual intent better for the audience. He is lying of course.
The argument isn’t always made on such disingenuous grounds. Not surprisingly, the Congressional debates over the 14th Amendment contain an extensive discussion of the range of people covered under the provision. There were many questions about how this might or might not apply to Indians, and in particular to Indians who retained connections to their own tribal communities. There were questions about how it might apply to Chinese immigrants and gypsies, etc.
Far from a clear concept, citizenship itself emerges as a tangled mess of a idea in these discussions. One gets a general sense that while many of the participants assumed that anyone in the United States was entitled to the legal protections in the Bill of Rights (which puts them at odds with much of the right wing today), they also recognized that the right to vote among other things was in fact limited to people who were not loyal to a foreign nation. They also distinguished the basic rights that might go with simply living in America from the right to hold property and/or the obligation to serve in the military if drafted, and all of this was discussed under the banner of ‘citizenship’. One gets the impression that those debating the 14th Amendment weren’t all that certain as to just what citizenship entailed. A few had definite opinions to be sure, but as a group, they are not all on the same page.
The whole issue is further complicated by the precedent set by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which contains explicit language excluding those loyal to a different nation, and an assumption by some participants that the 14th Amendment really does the same thing. In effect, people looking at two different documents containing very different language seemed to treat them as though they meant the same thing.
…which is a problem.
Here is the relevant text from the Civil Rights Act with the relevant section in bold:
To protect all Persons in the United States in their Civil Rights, and furnish the Means of their Vindication
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.
You can see that this doesn’t match the text of the 14th Amendment. Simply put; those who now assume that the 14th Amendment was always intended to exclude children of foreign nationals born in the United States would be right if they were talking about the Civil Rights Act. When talking about the 14th Amendment, however, they are talking about a very different text, and the relevant clause is simply lacking. Instead, such people must look for commentary from supporters in the Congressional record or some source of comparable value.
When they aren’t deliberately misrepresenting Jacob Howard, opponents of birthright citizenship usually reference Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, who maintains in the Congressional Record that the passage only applies to ‘complete’ citizens of the U.S. and goes on to argue that Navajos, for example are not complete citizens because, being still separate in some sense from the rest of the U.S., they do not vote and maintain their own separate jurisdiction.
(Don’t get your hopes up, racists! This fact has changed.)
Of course one problem with the Navajo example is that it applies to people who actively maintain a separate jurisdiction within the U.S., thus being yet another instance of the degree to which the legal framework for Indian tribes emerges haphazardly within the case history of the Supreme Court. The role that Indian tribal governments play in the legal framework of the United States has never been clear, and that has always complicated the rights of the nation’s indigenous peoples. So, the example is troublesome, to say the least.That said, the example is hardly beside the point. A good portion of the discussion about exemptions to the jurisdiction of the U.S. is driven by the very explicit question of whether or not it would make the entire native population into citizens. Those using comments about that debate are in fact exploiting the vagaries of of Federal Indian law to generalize an exemption from citizenship for non-nationals.
Yes, that’s right. People who want to keep Latinos from becoming American citizens are trying to remind us that the 14th Amendment was only supposed to protect blacks (another group these bigots are not too fond of), and they are resting their argument on efforts to keep Native Americans from voting.
Irony abounds. At last it would, if it weren’t dead already.
How Trumbuell’s point relates to the children of foreign nationals is another question. But if we take Trumbull’s claims in terms of the most general implications possible, the notion here is that full citizenship includes those who can vote and who re subject to the draft, etc., not those who, while entitled to protections of citizens, remain separate from the general population. Again, he is talking about the members Indian tribes, and again, this sense of the issue would match the text of the Civil Right Act; it does not match the text of the 14th Amendment.
The distinction between full citizenship and something slightly less did not escape these people; it is all over their discussion, and yet they did not write it into the text of the 14th Amendment. So, what do Trumbull’s comments amount to? Likely as not, a degree of confusion on his part, but those who use him to suggest a new reading of the 14th Amendment do more to show us that people don’t always understand the rules they advocate than they do to show us that the rule in question was clearly meant to exclude the children of foreign nationals.
This is one of the big problems with Constitutional originalism; its advocates continually present us with a case for following the rules as America’s founders (or at least those framing particular laws and constitutional provisions) would have understood them, but the understanding of such people is often as shifty as that of anyone we know today. This is one of the reasons we write things down folks; to fix what we mean in a static form, so that you can’t just keep changing your mind. Constitutional originalism effectively enables modern legal scholars to take that fixity out of the equation and cherry pick the past for the most convenient quotes possible. In this case it substitutes a general sense of how some proponents of the 14th Amendment might have understood it at the time (at least when debating the rights of Indian peoples), for the language of the text itself. When the language contradicts its interpretation by their preferred historical sources, they urge us to go with the sources instead of the text.
In effect, those reading birthright citizenship out of the 14th Amendment seek to see the text of the amendment itself swallowed up in a historical narrative. That this narrative itself is quite debatable is an objection in itself, but as a contextualization strategy for reading the 14th Amendment, it is utter bullshit.
This is a version of context suitable for Halloween, because this kind of context swallows up the very text it is intended to shed light on. No, these people aren’t upholding great constitutional principles, no matter how much they would wish we believed that; they are simply weaponizing obscure historical details, and they are doing so for the clear purpose of hurting some of the most powerless people on U.S. soil, the children of undocumented immigrants.
Of course the central irony here is that those pushing a reading of the 14th Amendment that excludes birthright citizenship are not acting in the spirit of the provision in any sense. Whatever else may be said of the 14th Amendment, it was certainly meant to protect people badly in need of help from the violence of racists intent on oppressing them. Historical obfuscation aside, those pushing this narrative today are seeking to empower racists Hell-bent on scapegoating immigrants from Latin America for our nations many problems. As much as these people may tell stories of standing up to great bastions of power and fighting a liberal establishment, these people really are punching down. They are punching down with a vengeance, and summoning a vision of historical context well suited to that purpose. Their argument fails as a point of principle. As a political agenda, it’s monstrous.
…and as far as Halloween monsters go, this one is pretty lame.
I could tell Player X didn’t like the plan. He’d been silent for awhile, and now he was asking a number of pointed questions. He had begun to ask who came up with the plan for the game in question, and knowing this player for the gruff sort of fellow he is, I could see it coming. His character would of course dismiss the whole idea, but would he also do insult the character who had come up with it? I’d seen this happen before, and I cringed.
It’s just a game, right?
That would be a common take on this sort of thing. It’s a role playing game. Whatever the player said, he would be saying in character, and he wouldn’t be saying it to a player. He’d be saying it character to character. So just let the whole thing roll!
The problem as I see it is this is just the sort of thing that’s hard to contain within the game setting. Whatever player character had come up with the plan in question within our storyline, a real person had actually come up with that plan and chosen to express it through that character. In-character, or not, any contempt shown to the plan could well have reflected back on the player. I’ve seen it happen before. One player says; “who came up with this idiotic plan?” and another player sitting there realizes he’s just been called an idiot, all in character of course, but the insult reaches right through the characters and into the room with the players sitting around the game table.
A lot depends on wording of course. If the player characters have well-established personalities, and/or if the terms of criticism clearly touch on those personalities (“hey elf, your pointy ears look stupid!” or “you dwarves are too fond of ale!”), then the insult is likely to stay in the game. It can even be quite fun to role play such conflict, but when the in-game features are thin (when the plan is a real attempt to solve a problem in game and the criticism is coming from a player who clearly doesn’t like that plan), the conflict won’t likely be contained in the game itself. The result can be an argument, or it can be an uncomfortable player. These things can blow up, or they can fester.
They can also be the reason one or more players find something else to do next week.
Luckily, the insult didn’t happen.
This kind of problem interests me for two reasons:
It’s the second of these themes that has me writing about the matter now. There are of course much more serious examples of the sort of problem I mention her, but this kind of thing happens a lot in Pen&Paper games. So, it’s not a terrible idea, I think, to meditate on this relatively light-stakes example of that problem a bit.
The activities in a pen&paper role playing game involve at least two very different contexts, one is an imagined context in which characters interact with each other in an imaginary world. The other is the game table around which actual people sit, devour snacks and narrate the actions of their own characters in response to challenges posed by the game master. Significantly, these actual players must cooperate to some degree in the construction of the imaginary world within which their character must operate. Even players choosing to role-play conflict must cooperate to understand the terms of the conflict and the potential means of playing it out. They don’t have to share exact interpretations of the imaginary world, but it does help if they share some understanding of the social rules by which their characters operate (and at the very least the mechanics by which the game will determine what happens when character A tries to punch character B in the nose). It is of course all supposed to be in good fun (at least at my games); everyone is supposed to enjoy themselves, even if their characters don’t.
In the example presented above, the imaginary interactions of a group of characters threatened to produce implications that stretched beyond the table and into the real world interactions. It’s not a hanging matter, no, but I did see real potential for one or more players to come away with a bad experience. Significantly, this problem was at least partly a question of contextualization. The metalinguistic framework which made it possible to understand the actions of one player in terms of the game world grew a bit too thin for my comfort. I’ve seen that framework break down entirely. If you’ve played pen&paper RPGs for long, you have too. It happens all the time.
Focus: scene -setting. I once had a pair of players who insisted on focusing on something other than my own narrative just about every time. If I asked them to set the characters up in a marching order, they began asking questions about the politics of the city we were headed to, how to build their characters, etc. If I introduced them to an non-player character interested in talking to them, they interrupted me to set up a marching order. If I told them no marching order was necessary, they focused on it anyway. Eventually, I realized that no matter what I was telling them, these two insisted upon talking about something else. The other players at the table were beyond frustrated, and so was I. We could not attain any kind of immersion into the story-line, because the narrative was constantly subject to pointless interruption. It was like trying to talk to someone on a static line.
It’s not that their questions were bad; it’s just that each question asked was consistently asked at the least appropriate time for doing so. In time, I came to see this as a control issue. Neither of these players were willing to let someone else take the lead. (Significantly, neither would let anyone else get the last word on anything, least of all each other), and preventing me from gaining any momentum when setting the stage served the same purpose. Simply put, neither of these players was willing to cooperate sufficiently to achieve a common narrative framework. I didn’t have a solution for this then, and I don’t now, except to game with someone else.
Which is what I do.
Killing Your Fellow PCs: Whenever a player character kills another player character, the chances that this will be taken personally grow rather high. That should be obvious, but I am amazed at the number of players who will swear that isn’t the case, or at least that it shouldn’t be. It is extraordinarily common to find players defending such actions by saying; “that’s what my character would do” or “my character is evil/selfish/greedy/etc.” …which of course begs the question; why did you role up a bastard in the first place? Simply put, this kind of thing isn’t an in-game problem; it’s an out-of-game problem. When you kill another player’s character, you are (at the very least) bringing to an end, a story-line into which that player has invested time and energy. There may be contexts in which that works out just fine, but most of the time, it just means that you as a player have placed your own fun above that of another.
Increasingly, I find myself saying to the players; “You can role-up any character you like, but please find a reason to cooperate with the others.” If you can find a way for your otherwise-evil character to bond or at least work with with their companions, then fantastic. If you can’t, then please come up with another concept.
Separating from the Group: Some players take great joy in sending their characters off on their own. A few minutes of side story is no big deal. It can even be fun, providing the player (and the GM) remembers that the sideline is a sideline and the character will eventually have to rejoin the others. When a player just keeps doing this, I will eventually stop coming up with reasons to get them back with the rest of the group.
The story-line goes this direction. Either bring your character back, roll-up a new character, or find another campaign.
Generic Disruptions: Along the same lines as the characters who wander off, some characters just keep generating pointless conflict. They pick fights with NPCs while the group is trying to keep a low-profile, steal things from others, knowing it will lead to retaliation, burn bridges with helpful allies, etc. There is a school of thought that says ‘let the players do what they like’ and some campaigns facilitate this nicely, but it doesn’t work well with a pointed plot. If the point of the campaign is to defeat the evil bad guy, save the princess, or find the Magic MacGuffin, then each such sub-plot grows increasingly more irritating. These sorts of disruptions really pose much the same problem as the decision to separate from the group, except the problem isn’t an imagined physical space; it’s a sub-plot that will suck up time and energy at the expense of the larger narrative.
Why not just let the player characters do as they like? Because each such diversion is in effect a competing story-line. Imagine what this would seem like in a movie or a novel! One or two side-stories adds a little extra flavor to the story and fleshes out characters. Too many such subplots breaks up the main story-line and increases the odds that you’ll replace the movie with an old episode of The Tic or leave the bookmark right there on page 32 of your book until your grand-kids find it in the attic and end up throwing it away because it bores the Hell out of them too. More to the point, players who consistently generate such side-conflicts are effectively competing with the GM (and the rest of the group) over the story-line for the campaign. Why that is happening is another question. What to do about it is another still. The important thing is to realize that it’s not really an in-game problem. It is a form of inter-player conflict, not a quirk of any given character.
Bully-Characters: I once told a player his character had spent an entire hour (measured in real time) given another crap about a failed action. He was shocked. He was even more shocked to find out I had timed him on the matter. The player said he could have sworn he had only spent a few minutes on it. My point was actually that the player had taken to causing his own character to bully that of the other player endlessly, though just about every game session. This could perhaps have been contained within the game setting, but the player doing the bullying often made some comments out of character as well, and he never let up, nor did he allow the second player ever to come out on top. Once again, the rationale was “that’s the way my character would behave,” and once again I rejected that explanation. When a player character consistently pushes another player character around, there is a point at which it will be frustrating for the second player. In my experience, a player who does this, does so for a reason, and that reason is NOT contained within the framework of the game world.
Fuzzy Rules and In-Character Conflict: If players turn their actual characters on each other, it really helps if the rules are clear at that point. Unfortunately, most of the time players do this they begin by grappling each other, and grappling rules are usually a little wonky. The result can often be counter-intuitive. So, when player A says “I grab player B by the balls and squeeze”, the specific mechanics for resolving this are often less helpful than if the player had just said; “I shoot him in the head.” When player B decides to fight back, it gets uglier still. A GM can finesse ambiguities much more easily when players are fighting non player characters. When two players go against each other, any benefit of the doubt given to one becomes a slight against the other
player character player.
…and the resulting hard feelings are rarely contained on the table.
It’s tempting to look for a solution by improving game mechanics or at least reviewing the mechanics you have at hand to be as clear as possible while adjudicating the fight. In most cases, though, I find myself asking the players to simply stop.
GNR? I think you could treat the old distinction between gamism, simulation, and narrative playing styles as an example of this sort of problem. Where one player wants to tell a good story, another really wants to see if he can build the best tank possible under the rules, and another may really want to see what a particular setting would look like in this or that particular game system. I somehow doubt that account would pass muster at The Forge, but I’m not interested in debating the ins and outs of this old theory. Suffice to say, that I think the kind of differences Rod Edwards and company talked about could be looked at as factors contributing to the breakdown of an in-game framework. Whether or not they constitute an exhaustive, or even a robust, theory of the many ways a game breaks down is another question.
Okay, so that’s the end of a long-winded rant about role playing games. Writing these points out as I have, I am struck by how obvious the points might seem, almost as if they are not worth saying. And yet, I am also struck by how often players seem to overlook these kinds of problems, or more to the point, how often they insist on trying to understand these problems within the context the game world. Players who consistently disrupt a campaign will often insist on in-character explanations for their own behavior, and GMs often try to come up with in-game solutions. Yet, that behavior will persist from one character to next and even from one campaign to the next. It is a game of course, but there are real people playing it, and sometimes what’s done in the game really is about the people around the game table.
Is it still hypocrisy if your contradictions are separated from one another by decades of your own life? If a moment of ‘yes’ and another moment of ‘no’ have enough time between them, does that mean your off the hook for the difference between them? Could life changing decisions be sufficient to ensue the past doesn’t count against the present? Might someone be excused for having it both ways if they do so in very different chapters of their own biography? Alternatively, supposing time and transformation could be enough to excuse great inconsistencies, might other matters prove sufficient to counteract them? Is it at least possible that time makes the difference in some instances and not others?
It’s common enough to hold moral contradictions against people; it’s also common enough to excuse them when the contradictions can be explained as a clear change of heart. But what if that change is a little too pat? What if it follows a course that’s just a little too obvious?
I am of course thinking about Brett Kavanaugh.
Watching Brett Kavanaugh struggle to explain his conduct in high school to an audience tasked with judging his fitness for office, I couldn’t help thinking about this very question. If his appointment is confirmed, Kavanaugh will take his place among the many conservative Catholics to hold a position on the Supreme Court of the United States. He will take his place in a judicial voting block that has consistently re-enforced the authority of the state over moral and spiritual matters and the role of Christianity in defining that authority. We can expect him to minimize gay rights and to hammer the final nail in the coffin for women’s reproductive rights as we know them today. If Kavanaugh takes a seat on that court, this will happen regardless of any transformations coming to Congress, even regardless of any possible changes in the White House. This man is poised to impose the moral order of a conservative Christian world view on us all, all of which makes it more than a little ironic to see Kavanaugh sitting there trying to explain the sins of his youth, the very sins he was once proud to proclaim.
I really do wonder what the teenage Kavanaugh would make of the old man now denying all the sexual conquests he was so proud to put in his yearbook?
To say that Kavanaugh partied a lot is to completely miss the point. His high school yearbook alone gives us plenty of evidence that Kavanaugh didn’t just drink and have sex, but that he approached these activities in terms of a toxic masculinity all-too pervasive in some circles. Kavanaugh may have told the world that he refrained some sex until well after high school, but in his yearbook, he wanted the world to know that he’d gotten laid. The story he told in that yearbook didn’t merely recount a sexual encounter, it did so in a manner degrading to the young woman in question. This isn’t merely the excess of a boy enjoying his own life; it’s the cruelty of a young man for whom at least a part of that joy seems to have come from his ability to hurt others, to dominate them.
The problem is plain enough. This is a man who will assert moral authority over our own lives. Make no mistake, that is what he has been put foreword to do! He will assert this authority amidst a number of important questions about his own personal morality.
At least one important defense of Kavanaugh’s character has been the notion that this occurred so long ago that it just isn’t relevant now. Is it really fair, his defenders ask, to impose consequences on the career of a man for things he did so many years ago? There is of course a trace of irony here in that Kavanaugh will almost certainly use the power of the Supreme Court to impose consequences well into the distant future on women for things they’ve done (or in some cases, things done to them) early in life. That’s a problem for Kavanaugh and those who support him. One of many.
The question I mean to raise here is this; is really a clean break here?
If Kavanaugh really had made a clean break with his predatory past, (and let’s be clear, the conduct contained in the yearbook alone is sufficiently predatory in itself to raise questions about his character), …if Kavanaugh really had made such a clean break with his past, then I for one would expect a more honest account for it in the present. When Kavanaugh pretends that his reference to Renate Alumnus was a gesture of respect (a gesture that neither he nor his buddies bothered to convey directly to her), he is lying. When Kavanaugh pretended the notion that this was a reference to sexual conquest is all in the minds of left-wing critics, he dismisses her own reaction to those very words. When he suggested this was all in the imagination of sick critics on the left, he implicated her own reaction to his words. He blamed her too for getting the actual point of his yearbook entry. In effect, Kavanaugh’s testimony in the hearing last Thursday carries foreword the very cruelty that put those words in his yearbook to begin with. When Kavanaugh feigns disgust at the imagination of senators questioning him about the meaning of this and other comments in his yearbook, Kavanaugh shows us that he isn’t at all prepared to own up to the man he once was. Which is one very good reason to question the notion that he is now someone very different.
A different man wouldn’t be afraid to own up to the actions of a childish former self, but a man still caught up in that very childish mindset might.
Of course we can see already ties to the Kavanaugh we see today in the one that wrote all those things in his yearbook. That wasn’t just a young man looking to have fun; that was a rich kid and a star athlete who attended Georgetown Prep, and who would later attend Yale as a legacy student. This kid had a Hell of a head-start in the world and he knew it. You can’t tell me the kid then sowing his oats and bragging about it in his yearbook didn’t have some sense of the future that lay before him, some sense of the role that his faith would play in that future and the potential power that lay within his grasp. Kavanaugh was going places, and his role in the Catholic Church would play a strong role in getting him to those places.
If Kavanaugh really did go to church back in 1982, as he assured us all during the hearing he did, he doesn’t seem to have made much of an effort to live the life envisioned in that church. Still, he had the good sense not to burn his bridges. That faith would serve him well one day, even if he wasn’t all that worried about it while working his way through those 100 kegs he also bragged about.
I can’t say how much of this Kavanaugh consciously thought out, but it’s an awfully common story-line. It’s taken for granted at some ages that some people will not live the life of the faith they profess, and that others won’t expect them to. It’s taken for granted that some people needn’t show common decency to others, let alone great piety, but that doesn’t stop them from endorsing either virtue when doing so won’t obligate them in any real manner. The day sometimes comes when such folks put away their excesses and take up a more conventional role in society, perhaps even a powerful one. In Kavanaugh’s case, this has meant (and will continue to mean) that he will enforce the terms of his own faith on others. It would be easy enough to say that he simply changed; decent enough to say that we should give him the benefit of the doubt as to the matter. And yet, the story remains just a little too pat. A little too convenient.
…and the inconsistently just a little too meaningful.
It would be one thing if the difference between the teenage version of Kavanaugh and the middle-aged man of today held no common thread between them. But is it really that hard to see in a boy who regards a sexual encounter as cause to humiliate the woman he had it with and one who would tell women everywhere that they must simply live with the consequences of their own sexual activity? Is it really that hard to see the connection between a young man for whom an accident of his birth played a key role in his education and one who would insist we should end affirmative action out of concerns over its fairness? Is it really too hard to see in a young man who brags up his party-life the same sense of entitlement shown in an older man who would lie to Congress about his role in the Bush administration or refuse to answer the questions of the opposition party at his most recent hearing? Is it so hard to see the sense of untouchable self-worth in both actions?
Kavanaugh may not be the party boy of his of yearbook, but his sense of his own power doesn’t seem to have much changed. He is still an elitist, and he is still happy to impose his will on others. If conventional (Catholic) morality now guides his actions more than it did back in his high school days, that morality is also now far more critical to the power he would wield over others. What Kavanaugh might once have taken through his own physical strength, he now takes by right of high office and pretense of moral purpose.
In the end, this isn’t even a story about hypocrisy; it is a story about a life blessed with privilege, and a man fully prepared to abuse it.
Both pictures were taken from the Wikopeadia page on Kavanaugh, 10/1/18: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Kavanaugh
Is Brett Kavanaugh guilty of sexual assault?
I don’t know.
I just watched an entire day of Senate Testimony on that very topic and I still don’t know one way or the other.
Should Brett Kavanaugh be on the U.S. Supreme Court?
If ever I had any doubts as to that judgement, today’s testimony was certainly enough to alleviate them. Of course, the man is a real threat to liberal politics, and I knew that before today. With a Republican President (even a complete lunatic of a Republican President), I would expect no less. But being opposed to someone’s politics, and thinking them unqualified for office aren’t exactly the same thing. After watching him today, however, I am convinced this man has neither the character nor the professionalism that one ought to expect of a Supreme Court Justice, regardless of his political persuasion.
Well, let me tell ya!
First, let me say that there are a couple variants of political hard-ball to which I do not really object, at least not on principle. Frankly, I think the Democrats would be well within their rights to reject any and all nominees the Trump administration puts forward at this point. The Republican Party made it damned clear that they weren’t going to work with Democrats when Barack Obama was in power, and I see no reason why the Democrats should be any more accommodating now that the Republicans dominate every branch of government. With a Supreme Court already tilted far to the right, this next appointment could well close quite a few doors for liberals and even moderates well into the foreseeable future. So, if Democrats want to fight about it, I’m on board to support them. Their prospects for victory are another question. What tactics are permissible, or even practical? That too is another question.
So, if the Democrats had wanted to just say ‘no’ and stick with that without even providing an argument on the merits of this particular nominee, that would be fine by me. The problem is of course, that they don’t presently have the numbers to win such a battle. The Republicans will beat them in a vote, and there is only so much you can do with procedural gambits. Even the filibuster will only accomplish just so much these days.
So, what’s to stop the Republicans from just ramming the whole nomination through? Apparently nothing. And why not? I may not like it. Other liberals may not like it. By I’m not sure they owe us any real seat at the table. As I mentioned, I think it’s Republicans that broke the goodwill necessary to negotiate these things in good faith, but the fact is that no such good faith exists at this time. Republicans and Democrats are no longer simply parties likely to disagree; they are enemies Hell-bent on each others’ destruction. There is no use crying about it or pretending otherwise. The bottom line is neither side here can be expected to make any effort to work with the other. Democrats were bound to say ‘Hell no’ going into this, and Republicans were bound to say “go fuck yourselves!” Anyone who was surprised by the vicious nature of this process has not been paying attention.
Our country is broken, folks. That’s a fact.
So how did things stand going into this? Right wingers assure us that Kavanaugh is an upstanding jurist with impeccable credentials. Having spent the last decade as a circuit court Judge, Kavanaugh is certainly qualified to handle important questions of constitutional law. Critics point to history of political extremism, much of it stemming from his work on the Starr investigation and later in the Bush administration. Kavanaugh may be an accomplished Judge, but he is also a judge with a history of highly partisan brinksmanship behind him.
One of the more serious (and odd) questions about Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve as a judge stems from his purchase of baseball tickets which led him to amass anywhere from $60,000-$200,000 in debt, which was paid off quite suddenly and without any clear explanation as to how. (It’s not likely the money could have come from his own salary.) That’s hardly enough evidence to convict the man of a crime, but it’s certainly cause for concern about the ability of a judge to do his job without undue influence by outside parties.
Perhaps the most serious questions about Kavanaugh’s professional conduct stem from the 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings in which critics allege Kavanaugh misled the Senate on his role in the hiring process for several parties, and in the adoption of warrantless wiretapping procedures after 9-11. In the confirmation hearings of the time, Kavanaugh adopted the practice is answering questions about his involvement in these politically touchy matters with hedging statements about whether or not he ‘handled’ a case or took a lead role, etc. He may or may not have maintained this word-game consistently throughout the process, but it certainly had the effect of misleading the Senate into the impression the he played little or no role in decisions over which subsequent revelations have shown clear involvement on his part. Whether or not this amounts to perjury, depends on who you ask. However you might answer that question, it certainly reveals a pattern of deceitful conduct in the confirmation process, and that alone could be a deal breaker for some folks thinking about his present nomination.
It should be.
And then there are the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Pardon me, predatory sexual misconduct.
It’s important to remember that Kavanaugh is not merely accused of doing something sexually inappropriate; he is accused to doing so against the will of the women involved. Whether or not there is any evidence to support these accusations, it is important to recognize the gravity of the accusations themselves. Kavanaugh is accused to consciously and willfully hurting the women in question, not merely getting fresh, but of taking steps to thwart their efforts to fend him off. That’s not just inappropriate; its predatory.
For purposes of brevity (lost hope that that is) I shall stick with the one accusation at issue in today’s hearings. This accusation comes from Christine Blasey Ford, who maintains that Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, pulled her into a room during a party back in high school, closed and locked the door, and sexually assaulted her. (More detail is just a google away.)
Many find Ford’s accusation in itself troublesome, partly because of the length of time between the event in question and the moment at which she went public, and partly because Senator Diane Feinstein had been aware of it for sometime before presenting it to the committee reviewing Kavanaugh’s nomination. Why did Feinstein wait so long? Many feel it was because this is an obvious ploy to delay the Senate’s confirmation vote. She maintains that Ford had asked her to keep the accusation confidential until the late date. So, which is it? Both is certainly an option. As to the length of time it took Ford to come forward, this does put a Hell of a strain on the effort to establish the facts of the case. Nevethertheless efforts to cast this delay as obvious proof that Ford is lying fall flat. Far from unusual, such delays are common among subject to sexual abuse. They often face serious backlash and stigma, and the accused often go unpunished. Not surprisingly, such victims often try to live with it themselves. This sort of thing may throw a wrench in the conceits of critical thinker hoping to sort the whole matter out with an honest debate, but it remains the task of committees like this to do their best.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is not a criminal trial. Kavanaugh will not go to prison on account of today’s events, but he might lose a job over it (maybe two). The question here is not whether or not he has been proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Quite the contrary; it is whether or not the Senate can say with confidence that he belongs on the highest court in the land.
Watching today’s hearing, I saw little in the way of objective evidence telling us whether or not Kavanaugh did the things Ford said he did. There are several angles that could be taken to find out more, one of them of course being the possibility of asking the FBI to investigate the charges. Other options may exist, to be sure, but that is one with a degree of promise, not because the FBI will make any decisions on the matter, but because they can help to sort out many of the details at issue in the case. In any event, that would take some time. How much time, nobody can say, but it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t have a decision ready by tomorrow, which is when the Senate plans to vote on the matter. In the interim, there just isn’t much factual information to go on, certainly none that points conclusively one way or another.
This is certainly a problem. It may even be a problem for which Ford and/or Feinstein bear some responsibility. Were this a criminal trial, it would probably be enough of a problem to get the whole case tossed out, but this is not a trial, it is a political decision, and that decision is about whether or not Kavanaugh is worthy of a seat on the court.
Luckily, today’s proceedings did give us plenty of information to help answer that question. Simply put, Kavanaugh’s approach to the hearing was beyond reprehensible. No, I am not talking about his anger. It might be fair to suggest a nominee for such a high position ought to be more composed than he was, but I think the nature of the accusations make an emotional response understandable. There may even have been an element of an conscious choice to it, one perhaps urged by the idiots currently occupying the White House. Still, I think it best to give Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt as to his emotions. No. What bothers me isn’t his combativeness it’s the pattern of deceit he revealed in his answers to the Democratic Senators.
First, there is the whole matter of whether or not Kavanaugh would support asking the FBI to investigate the case. Asked this question repeatedly, Kavanaugh dodged it every time. He blamed the Democrats for delaying the investigation themselves. He lectured people on the limits of such an investigation as if literally every person in the room and a good number of us watching on television didn’t already know those limitations. He tried all manner of ways to explain why such a request might not be necessary. What he didn’t do, couldn’t bring himself to do, was simply answer the question. Hell, I could have done it for him; “No sir. I want this over. The vote is scheduled for tomorrow, and I want this concluded at that time. Full stop.” …I really think that was the answer (unless the real answer had something to do with fears of what the FBI could find). However he might have explained his response, Kavanaugh’s failure to answer a simple yes or no question is a index of insincerity.
Kavanaugh’s refusal to support inclusion of Mark Judge directly in the hearings was similarly evasive. Kavanaugh kept telling us that Judge had already spoken on the matter, but a simple question from Leahy very quickly demonstrated the value of questioning Judge directly in a hearing. Neither Kavanaugh, nor the Republican Senators ever acknowledged this fact, and their excuses grew increasingly disingenuous over the course of the hearing.
Kavanaugh was also asked to explain several comments in his High School, yearbook. Here is a copy of the text as produced by Vox.com (the relevant quotes are in red):
Varsity Football 3, 4; J. V. Football 2; Freshman Football 1; Varsity Basketball 3, 4 (Captain); Frosh Basketball (Captain); J. V. Basketball (Captain); Varsity Spring Track 3; Little Hoya 3, 4*** Landon Rocks and Bowling Alley Assault — What a Night; Georgetown vs. Louisville — Who Won That Game Anyway?; Extinguisher; Summer of ‘82 — Total Spins (Rehobeth 10, 9…); Orioles vs. Red Sox — Who Won, Anyway?; Keg City Club (Treasurer) — 100 Kegs or Bust; [redacted] — I Survived the FFFFFFFourth of July; Renate Alumnius; Malibu Fan Club; Ow, Neatness 2, 3; Devil’s Triangle; Down Geezer, Easy, Spike, How ya’ doin’, Errr Ah; Rehobeth Police Fan Club (with Shorty); St. Michael’s…This is a Whack; [redacted] Fan Club; Judge — Have You Boofed Yet?; Beach Week Ralph Club — Biggest Contributor; [redacted] — Tainted Whack; [redacted]; Beach Week 3-107th Street; Those Prep Guys are the Biggest…; GONZAGA YOU’RE LUCKY.
Michael Avenatti suggests that the FFFFFFourth reference is slang for “Find them, French them, Feel them, Finger them, F*ck them, Forget them.”
Others have suggested that the Devil’s Triangle was a reference to sex involving two boys and a girl.
Some have suggested that boofing is either sex in general or anal sex in particular.
According to Kavanaugh, the first was a joke about the way a friend pronounced the F-word, the second is a drinking game like quarters, and the third refers to farting. If Kavanaugh is telling the truth, these comments might be crude, but they are essentially consistent with his own self-presentation as a man who retained his virginity for several years after high school. If he is wrong, then these are lies, as is his earlier effort to present himself as a virgin at the time this was published.
More importantly, Kavanaugh’s response to the phrase “Renate Alumnius” suggests genuine malice. In today’s hearing, he suggested that this was merely a way to show that he and his classmates wanted to include a young lady, Renate Schroeder (now Renate Schroeder Dolphin) from a nearby school in their yearbook. In was not, he stated, a reference to sexual conquest as others have suggested. The problem is that she herself was unaware of these comments made by Kavanaugh and several of his male classmates. If the point was to include her, they forgot the most important part, which was actually talking about it with her. Still more to the point, when she herself learned about this, Renate was angry (even withdrawing her name from the list of 65 women supporting his character in the wake of Ford’s accusations). When Senator Blumenthal asked Kavanaugh about Dolphin’s reaction in today’s hearing, Kavanaugh feigned outrage, suggesting that Blumenthal was inappropriately sexualizing the comment.
That Dolphin herself interpreted the comment in question to be a sexual reference is clear enough from her own comments on the matter, but Kavanaugh pretends the implication has been fabricated by others. And thus he projects his own thinking in the yearbook onto those trying to call him out for it.
If the other denials are lies, Kavanaugh’s response to questions about Renate Dolphin amount to gaslighting.
Then of course, there is Kavanaugh’s repeated claims that all four people who were supposedly present at the party in Ford’s accusation have said it didn’t happen. At some point in the hearing, Kavanaugh was content to suggest that they didn’t remember it, which would be accurate, but by the end of the hearing, he kept telling everyone that the others had said it didn’t happen. ‘That didn’t happen’ and ‘I don’t remember it’ are not the same thing. There is a world of difference between those two claims, and I for one would expect anyone on the United States Supreme Court to know the difference between them. If this was a conscious deceit, then it was one worthy of a slow-witted sophomore; it isn’t a gambit worthy of an accomplished judge.
So there it is!
This is an awful lot of deceit for someone looking to be named a judge for life, let alone a justice on the highest court of the land. In the heat of the arguments, questions about these claims might have seemed a little suspicious, but upon reflection, they become a lot more important. Like Kavanaugh’s comments in his 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings, his responses demonstrate a consistent effort to mislead the Senate regarding the matters at hand. Some of these deceits simply aren’t even necessary, or at least they wouldn’t have been if Kavanaugh hadn’t committed himself to a certain narrative about his sexual history. Whatever his reasons for producing them, these lies tell us a great deal about Kavanaugh’s character and his approach to legal matters.
Contrast this with Christine Blasey Ford, who conducted herself admirably throughout the hearing. She too had trouble handling her emotions, but she sure as Hell did a better job of it than Kavanaugh. Rachel Mitchel, the prosecutor who questioned Ford in this hearing brought out some inconsistencies in Ford’s overall story (her fear of flying, for example), but none of these proved central to the claims at hand. Significantly, Ford answered the questions in a straight-forward manner, conceded points and even corrected errors herself. We can say of Ford that she doesn’t have a lot of evidence proving that her accusations are true. What we can’t say of Ford is that she lied her way through the hearing. Kavanaugh definitely did. So, if I have nothing else to go on than the credibility of the two people in question, then I know damned well which one to go with. Simply put, Ford proved herself to be a more trustworthy witness.
Would I want to see a man locked up with so little to go on?
Am I comfortable denying someone a seat on the Supreme Court on that basis alone.
At the end of the day, this confirmation hearing still leaves us with an image of a political process so broken it taints everyone who touches it. Today’s hearing was a disaster. Something about America just doesn’t work anymore, and this hearing (like the other disaster unfolding in the White House) is just one symptom of it. But if we Americans really must charge right off a cliff, as we seem to be doing these days, then let us do it without this particular judge!
Kavanaugh does not belong on the Supreme Court. He doesn’t belong on a Circuit Court Either.
One of the more iconic images we get from The Searchers, features John Wayne standing in the doorway of a home, the majestic landscape of Monument valley behind him. It’s a recurrent motif in The Searchers, looking out through a doorway; it makes a great metaphor through which to view the content of a western. Those of us watching in the present look out into the wilderness beyond, almost as if we were viewing the frontier from the shelter of civilization itself. Men like John Wayne move back and forth across that threshold, but we don’t. We view the mythic American frontier from the safety of the hearth while dangerous men, real men, like John Wayne transform the world beyond into the safe environments we now call home. After standing in the doorway a bit in the final scene, Wayne saunters off back out onto that wilderness. He may be an agent of civilization, but he’s never quite at home in it. Wayne belongs out there, in the desert with all kinds of wild men. It’s about as powerful a statement as anyone ever made in the western genre.
This image returns to us in Malaglutit, a remake of The Searchers by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Angalaaq featuring an all-Inuit cast. This time what passes for an entrance is a hole torn into an igloo by men for the explicit purpose of taking women by force. Just as in the John Wayne/John Ford version of this story, the raiders have carried women off to parts unknown. The effort to reclaim these women will of course provide the substance of the story itself, but that moment when the men in either film return to find carnage in what should be a home is one of the more powerful scenes in the story. In The Searchers, Wayne enters the wrecked home and pauses in a small doorway, clearly distraught by what he sees. In Malaglutit, the porthole isn’t even a doorway it’s a gaping wound. This porthole isn’t about frontier mythology; its symbolism is more direct, far more graphic, and it speaks far more directly to violence that has occurred inside, the violence still occurring somewhere out there.
This film has been on the festival circuit for a couple years now, but it’s still rather hard to come by. I finally got a chance to watch it when we showed Malaglutit at the Motif Film Festival in Fairbanks last month. Zacharias Kunuk may not be that well known south of the arctic circle and outside of indigenous circles, but he probably should be. His movie, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), is perhaps the most well known of his creations. Now THAT film you can get ahold of. It’s well worth the watch. Angalaaq is best known for playing the lead role in Atanarjuat, though he was also excellent in The Necessities of Life. And it’s one of the reasons I have been looking forward to Malaglutit. The Searchers is easily one of the greatest westerns ever made. To see it remade as an indigenous production raises all manner of interesting prospects. To see it done by people as talented as Kunuk and Angalaaq makes them all that much more interesting.
Oh yeah; Spoiler alert!
It’s difficult to make a sustained comparison between the two films, though that seems to be where I am going with this. Kunuk’s cast is all Inuit. The villains, the heroes, the heroines; all of them are Inuit. So, the many racial themes present in the original Searchers just don’t enter into this version of the story. Along with the absence of race, I think you’d have to say the essential themes of an American western are largely missing here (though at least one critic has referred to it as a Northern). It seems that some of the landscape Kunuk filmed might echo the rock formations of Monument Valley, but if so, the resemblance is slight. Most significantly, the central protagonist here is doesn’t carry the moral complexity of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. At least, we don’t have to wonder if Kuanana (the hero in Malaglutit) will kill his wife and daughter instead of rescuing them. That was a big part of the original Searchers, and it’s not present in this story.
What is present here, what is new to the basic-story-line, is an extraordinarily frank meditation on rape. In the original Searchers, violence between men is all over the screen, but the rape and torture of women takes place off-screen. We are invited to imagine its horrors, but what we see are men shooting at each other in a plot-line shaped by those horrors. In Malaglutit, we see much (though not all) of the sexual violence. From the moment of capture to the actual rape of the women in this film the camera lingers; we are forced to watch this play out slowly on screen. I wouldn’t say that the scenes are all that sexually explicit, but I would say that they are emotionally explicit. What we see isn’t body parts; people struggling with one another. Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the whole film, at least for me, occurs shortly after the initial capture when the kidnappers pause for a break in their travel, their captives still tied to the sleds. Ostensibly a chance to eat and rest, it is also the first time they and their victims are alone together with enough time to contemplate the prospects ahead of them. It is a moment of calm, and yet one thoroughly saturated with violence.
There is something about the stripped down nature of this story line that helps us focus on the violence against the women here. Yes, there men struggling to save these women, but the epic battle between good men and evil men doesn’t eclipse the struggle between the captors and their captives in this story. We are never afforded the luxury of thinking about this as a story about men. The unimagined horrors of The Searchers have been put right there in front of us in Malaglutit. In the original, John Wayne’s character is driven made at the thought that his niece might have gone native so to speak, that she had been sullied by a Comanche and (worse) that she might have grown to accept it. Racial themes play a big part of the horror through which Wayne’s character views the events in question. In Malaglutit, racial differences are non-existent, and the violent process by which a captive might be made to give up hope unfold right there on the screen in front us us.
But do they?
Do they give up hope?
That was the question that occupied my attention throughout this story. Of course I also wanted Kuanana to rescue them, and I wanted the bastards who committed these terrible acts to be punished. But more than anything else, I wanted the women, Ailla and her daughter, to come through themselves. I wanted to see them hold on, not because Kuanana would have wanted them to, but because I saw enough of their story to care about their own struggle, their own part in this story-line.
At the end of the day, this really is its own film
(Kunuk on Malaglutit)
I have papers to grade. So, I guess summer is really over.
I was planning to take it easy this summer, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. A move across town took up a lot more time than Moni and I expected. Our trip to Valdez is still the highlight of the season for me, but I also made it down to Montana on a work-related trip and down again to Fairbanks to help put on the Motif Film Festival. When I wasn’t traveling or taking boxes upstairs, I was busy working on class materials and whatnot. Suffice to say, it was an interesting summer.
One of the most interesting things about this particular summer is just how long the sea ice seemed to remain intact, and how long much of it stuck around shore. It seems like this last winter got started late (snow didn’t start sticking here in Barrow until well into October), so I suppose it’s fitting in some sense that the remnants of that winter would linger a bit. It certainly made for some beautiful views. Few sites compare to the midnight sun shining down on an entire ocean served on the rocks, so to speak.
Yeah, people do swim in this stuff, usually just for a minute or two, just long enough to say they did it.
Other people do this.
(Click to embiggen.)
An ice bow, some sea ice, and an annoying little blue dot.
Sorry, for the poor quality of this video, and in particular for my very shaky hand.
What is witchcraft?
In mainstream RPGs, I think it usually takes the form of a malevolent spell caster standing somewhere behind a few minions blasting away at the PCs. To give her attacks a the flavor of witchcraft, the Game Master might choose a few spells thought fitting for a witch. Polymorph (or some other form of malevolent transformation) is a common choice. (I once put some player characters up against a mean old witch who had been transforming live gnomes into yard sculptures.) In any event, I think players usually experience witchcraft in the form of a conventional battle with a boss, one whose attacks are well known to them.
The problem of course is that this isn’t really the nature of witchcraft as we find it in the real world. I know. Witchcraft ain’t real, but the fear of it sure as Hell is. Having lived and worked in a community where fear of witches is a common concern, I’ve had the subject in the back of my mind ever since. I think about it most when gaming, because t he experience of world full of malevolent magic is nothing like the treatment commonly given the subject in role-playing games.
Setting aside for the moment, the many benign variations of paganism, the form that witchcraft takes in human history isn’t a toe-to-toe with a green-faced woman zapping away at people with her wand. No, witchcraft isn’t that lady over there about to hit you with 3d6 worth of damage. The phenomenon may be gendered, at least in its common western variants, but her attacks just aren’t that obvious.
Witchcraft is wondering why your crops failed this year. It is the deep suspicion that there is a reason your son fell down the stairs and twisted his ankle last week. Why did the cow stop producing milk anyway? And is that a sore throat you woke up with this morning? Wonder how that happened! Witchcraft is the deep dark suspicion that someone out there, perhaps someone you know and love, is responsible for these things. It’s the near certainty that someone you know, someone you probably think of as a friend, may actually wish you harm. Witchcraft is the fear that those very people might have the power to act on it. It’s the fear that the pEetty disasters of every day life could just be happening because someone you know is wielding just such powers against you.
Of course, this is only a problem if you choose to see it that way, but the challenge as I see it that witchcraft poses for conventional gaming is how to cloak witchcraft in the form of uncertaintVy? Nobody has to do that, but doing so strikes me as an interesting challenge. To carry out this off, the witch must be able to attack without being detected. More than that, the players must not be all that sure whether or not they have been attacked at all. Better still, a world full of such wiItches would present players under no such attack whatsoever with the lingering fear that seemingly minor set-backs might well have been due to malLevolent causes. In such a world, every difficulty, and every problem, no matter how innocent it may seem, is actually cause for suspicion. The question is, of course, how to inflict that level of paranoia on them?
Story-teller games aren’t my favorite flavor of geeketry, but I suspect this is something they can probably hHandle a bit better than the usual D&Desque gaming format. At least part of the problem here is balance. Combining magic with stealth generates a great deal of power. Hence, the rarity characters wielding such power, and the general tendency to nerf that power whenever it is allowed in the world at hAand. Another problem has to do with the mechanics of the games in question. Players usually know when they’ve been attacked even if their characters don’t. (“Make a save! …uh, no reason.”) A third problem is that conventional games rarely incorporate the kind of mundane evils that give witchcraft its pPeculiar power over the imagination. Player characters don’t usually have families or cows to take care of, and they almost never just slip on the staircase. Sure a GM may tell the players that this or that non-player character character had an accident, but when a player character is hurt, she is generally hurt in the course of some meaningful encounter with a clear threat unfolding in a soon-to-be-obvious story-line. You can generate exceptions to these problems, but the fact remains that the mechanics of most such games just don’t lend themselves to the level of uncertainty that makes susPpicion of witchcraft a reality in so many parts of the world.
I once tried to resolve this problem so as to enable attacks from witches and witch like villains. I figured the keEy was to introduce random disasters into the game. So, I generated rules for such things in both 3rd edition and my home brew (Worlds of Hurt). I made-up 3 different kinds of random disasters; diseases, accidents and ill-omens. Player characters then had a random chance to encounter one or more random disasters over the course of a game. They would have to make a defense roll against these disasters, which I ensured would be the same roll regardless of the source. I designed it so that this would be rare, but not so rare as to be freakishly out of place. In general, I aimed for about one such disaster to one player character in the course of any giveNn game session. None with good luck, and more than one with bad luck.
I also gave the landSscape in my worlds moral characteristics so that PCs could experience a greater or lesser chance of encountering random disasters depending on how well they fit with the local environment. A Paladin traveling through Morder, for example, had a much better chance of stepping on a thorn than an orc thief in that same setting. The Paladin would also have a better chance of getting an infection if he did step on that thorn. Now take the orc into the elven forest, and he’s the one who falls out of the tree house and breaks his leg. When characters are matter out of place, so to speak, the landscape works against them. It tries to get rid of them in subtle ways, and the end result is an increase of random disasters.
This approach was fun for awhile independent of the whole witchcraft theme, but I have to admit, what got me headed down that path was the hope of a scenario involving witchcraft, or at least the suspicion on it. I wanted the players to wonder at some point if a character was under attack. I wanted them to struggle with the uncertainty.
For balance, I ensured that witchcraft would require either direct contact with a victim, or some kind of sympathetic magic (e.g. possession of an item from the victim). I also ensured that witchcraft and any comparable form of attack would take an enormous amount of time to unfold, not rounds but game sessions. Such attacks would be progressive, letting players struggle to grasp the significance of seemingly random events while evil took its course. The potential solution to such attacks would involve divination and/or magical spells which could turn a curse back on its source. This fit with the kind of scenario I had in mind. At some point, it would become clear to the players that they were under attack, and they would have to devote time and energy to deal with it. But would they realize it in time? I wanted the sweet-spot for realization to fall on or near the point where success in fighting off a curse on depended on action within a game or two, so part of the problem posed by witchcraft would be managing this attack while dealing with whatever other problems they already had on the table.
My first real test of this approach took the form of a succubus in my home brew. Like the witch, the attack of a succubus shouldn’t be obvious, I reckon. It should be a lingering guilt about those dreams, and perhaps a suspicion they are the reason your backpack feels heavier and your sword feels just a bit more awkward. Since the dreams would be a dead giveaway, I created a process that would put them near the end of the attack. I designed my monster and put one into the campaign.
While in town, the players had a number of odd encounters, but one of them was with an old lady in some kind of need. A PC resolved this by giving her something and got a big hug in response. Having concluded their business in town, the PCS wandered – as PCs will do – off on some new adventure. The next game session, the PC that had helped her had a small accident, nothing major, and not entirely out of the ordinary. The players continued on. The next game session that PC had two or three accidents, one of which hurt him a lot more. The players began to talk about the possibilites. Three games in, the PC had several injuries, one of which proved quite serious and then he fell ill. Somewhere in here the PC remembered a erotic dream, and then he realized it was happening on a regular basis. The players hadn’t encountered a succubus in this system yet, so it took them awhile to get the connection, but they were on the whole witchcraft angle. It was time to consult a shaman.
I actually don’t remember whether a Player Character or a random NPC performed the magic in question, but the magic worked and they discovered the source of the attack. By now the party was a good hundred miles away. They tried a healing spell, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Instead they would have to find the original source of the attack. Lucky for them, she was trailing the party with henchmen in the hopes of finishing the whole lot of them while one fighter was badly weakened. (Had they delayed acting a game session or two, she would likely have succeeded!) This of course did lead to a conventional face-off with the baddy, but one that followed at least 3 games of uncertainty and a lot of effort to unravel the mystery. For an extra twist, the attack form used by the succubus would leave a permanent wound unless her victim scored the killing blow. If he succeeded, he would gain an extra benefit, but by now he really needed to be the one to do the killing.
…which of course, he did.
All in all, I’d say that scenario was quite a success. The players were a little more wary of random disasters after that, but no major witch hunts followed. They didn’t turn on each other or any of their NPC allies. To make that a genuine hazard I would need to keep them in once place, which we could do in a different campaign. In any event, I was happy with the succubus scenario. In this instance, at least, my system had worked.
The problem of course was that the system worked well because I had a plot in mind that relied on the mechanic in question. I didn’t mind the accidents, and the players humored me until the plot thickened, then they were as into it as I was (I think).
Random disasters are interesting when they really could be central to the story, not so much when they aren’t. But f course, that’s the point. Sometimes random disasters will be just that random, and then they quickly become tedious. These factors have been interesting when the game is heavy on role-playing and I’ve had time to develop the setting. Questions about who does and doesn’t thrive in a given physical setting can carry the interest in random disasters when no witches are around. In a hack and slash campaign, I don’t bother with them. The trouble is, I mostly do hack&slash campaigns these days. Nobody I now know has time for in-depth story-lines.
Ah well, one day!
In any event, I think the trouble with this approach is that it only really works if you are focusing on stories that use the mechanic, but the point of the mechanic is of course that sometimes it won’t be that important. If you want to run a couple game sessions of a conventional orc war, or maybe even the standard bar fight, then the effort to deal with random disasters quickly becomes an unhelpful distraction. Still, this is one one effort to try and reproduce the experience of a world saturated with suspicions of witchcraft. I wonder if anyone else has tried anything with a similar effect, perhaps using a different approach? What interests me about this is the uncertainty of evil magic. There must be many more ways to set that up.
If per chance you noticed a typo or two in this post, I ask only that you consider the possibility that it might not have been me.
Malevolent forces are out there!