The End of Everything at the Anchorage Museum


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The End of Everything

I thought I’d share this little gem currently on display in the Anchorage Museum. It’s called “The End of Everything” by Thomas Chung. I’m sorry, the photo-quality is really crap. Just thought the content was worth sharing despite that. Anyway, here is what Chung has to say about it:

“The painting explores why we may, at times, dehumanize others. It reflects our current political times, which are brewing with hatred and conflict. The cowboy character riding the bomb represents the male American ideal, while the cherubs represent the many living forms of bigotry from the past and present. The graffiti on the polar bear comes from posters repeatedly disseminated around the University of Alakas Anchorage’s campus this year by white supremacists as part of a larger campaign.”

When Good Gods Go Bad


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Chick Tracts

The God of Chick Tracts always struck me as something of an asshole.

It’s a common assumption in religious polemics at least, that you can’t really hate someone you don’t believe in. You see this assumption appearing arguments for and against belief in God. Christian apologists often claim that atheists hate God, and that this hatred is proof positive we really know he exists after all. Atheism is little other than rebellion against God, at least according to this view. For our own part, atheists often respond to the accusation that we hate God by pointing out that we actually don’t believe in him. We can’t possible hate God, so the argument runs. We don’t even believe in him. At least we we have that in common I suppose, believers and unbelievers. We agree that it doesn’t make sense to hate a being you don’t really believe in.

Except I don’t agree with that either.

To those who insist on this assumption, I have two questions:

Do you watch Game of Thrones?

How do you feel about Joffrey?

Admittedly, this gambit loses a little force when the answer to the first question is ‘no’. Still, t think those familiar with the HBO series or the books it’s based upon will get the point pretty quickly. This hateful little brat prince is hardly unique in fiction. Felix Unger and Frank Burns used to get pretty deep under my skin. I didn’t believe in them either. I certainly don’t believe in Lucy from Peanuts, but when she pulls the football out from under Charlie it makes just wanna reach right into the screen and throttle the little two dimensional mini-troll. Can’t stand the Police Chief in most detective shows or the principle in countless school settings. The list of fictional villains, nitwits, jerks, and outright assholes goes on and on. None of these characters are real. But yeah, I hate them!

(Here, I can practically hear my mother saying; “no, you dislike them intently,” but no, I hate them.)

I really don’t think my feelings about these characters are all that unusual. Joffrey, at least, seems to have inspired quite a few haters out there. Hell, I reckon that’s something else believers and unbelievers can generally agree on. The little bastard was awful. Got off with an easy death!

Anyway, the point is that you can have a strong emotional reaction to a being you know very well isn’t real. People ought to keep that in mind when they opt to battle it out over the existence of God.

I should add that this point can flow in both directions or even (I suppose) at a tangent to the usual stakes. I can love Jesus when he’s preaching tolerance and compassion just as I can be outraged at a God who would tell Abraham to kill his own son. The inconsistently might bother me if I actually believed either story to be true. As it stands  these are just emotional reactions to a being I don’t really think is real, as described by different narrators with different messages at different times in history. Maybe if I expected a degree of literal truth from these stories, I would feel the need to work out my feelings about the big Guy In the Sky, but I don’t. I can accept that stories about this being will trigger different feelings at different times, and no reaction at all in many instances. Consistency might be a desirable property of arguments and theories, but it a square peg to pound in the round hole of emotions.

What makes the difference between a vision of God that inspires me and one that pisses me off may be an interesting question, but the answer to that question is, for me anyway, essentially a function of story-telling.

I suppose a Christian too could acknowledge some role for the story-tellers in his feelings about God in different parts if scripture. There is a certain flat-footed evangelism that runs contrary to such an approach, but not every believer checks their sense at the church door. I’ve known quite a few who could handle such questions with subtlety and care.

I realize this may not be the most serious theme in debates over the existence of God, but it certainly does seem ubiquitous. I think to some degree this is a reflection of the debate-camp subculture that has developed around people interested in haggling out the issue. I’ve certainly engaged in my share of such matters, but one does not live by polemics alone, and not everything that people think or feel about the topic in question comes prefigured for purposes of argumentation. We can argue the rational merits of any given position, but nobody should really be surprised to find that participants in these arguments also have an emotional reaction to the topic.

We’re allowed to be human.

So are they.


I know I’ve made this argument before. I just wanted to take another crack at it.

Black k Klansman


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BlacKkKlansman.pngThere are moments (mostly the innocent ones) in Black Klansman where the movie seems to be telling us something about the 70s. There are other moments (as in references to “America First” or allusions to the Trump administration) when the movie is clearly telling us something about today. Most of the time, however, the movie seems to be telling us about both at the same time. What’s missing from this movie is the period in between, a good three or four decades, depending on how you count them, when many of us might have thought race relations were getting better. Perhaps that thought was never more than naiveté, a mere fantasy, but if so the fantasy was certainly a part of the world erased in this film. I’d like to think Spike Lee is wrong to erase those years in this film, but he isn’t.

That erasure, it seems, is precisely the point.

The hope of those intervening years between the end of segregation in America and the present rise of white nationaism is in fact well well represented in Black Klansman. It’s repreented by Ron Stalworth (played by John David Washington), the central character in Black Klansman, a story inspired by events in the career of a real life police officer. We meet Stalworth as he becomes the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. It’s a step forward, some might have said back in the day. “Selling out” might be how others would have put it. Stalworth lives in the tension between these two ways of looking at his career, one which envisions police authority as consistent, at least in theory with the possibility or racial justice, and one which sees it as an explicit tool of white supremacy. For his own part, Stalworth is clearly trying to make the former outlook work, but he’s torn from all sides, both by racism within the police force and by those who see police as an essentially racist institution.

To hear him talk, Stalworth could pass for white, which probably says as much about those in the movie (and those of us watching it) who think he sounds white as it does about the man himself. Whatever the reason, this feature of Stalworth’s character has an obvious utility; it will enable him to pass, at least on the phone. Stalworth is also willing to cut his fro if the Police Chief wants him to, but no, that’s not necessary, The Chief likes it. At the same time, Stalworth fights a never ending battle against the casual racism of his fellow officers. What to do about the overt bigots whose racism is far from casual, he isn’t sure, at least not at the outset of the film. Stalworth is picking his battles. Fair enough! But is the trade-off equitable? One gets the impression no-one is quite happy with the arrangement, least of all Stalworth himself.

It’s this awkward effort to find an acceptable accommodation between social justice and institutions which have historically enforced racism that makes Stalworth a great symbol for the intervening years between the seventies and the modern era. He is a back man trying to make America work. for his own people along with the rest of us. Some might consider that a fools errand, but Stalworth lived in an era when it seemed almost possible.

The Police Chief takes Stalworth’s discomfort up a notch by asking him to go undercover to attend a speech by Stokely Carmichael so he can keep track of the radical students who sponsored the event. There Carmichael is known by his new name of Kwame Ture. Ture speaks of police abuse, even the murder of African-Americans. He also urges his audience to prepare for violent revolution. Stalworth is surprised to find that he likes Ture’s speech, and the fact that he likes the speech is a big problem. It’s a problem because Stalwort is there to spy on the man and the black radicals listening to him. From the snadpoint of the police department, he’s not supposed to like the speech at all. From the standpoint of the student radicals, he isn’t supposed to be there at all, at least not for the reasons he has come.

…and certainly not wearing a mic.

It doesn’t help matters that Stalworth knows people in his own police department guilty of the very racism Ture was talking about. It also doesn’t help that he is falling rapidly in love with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), President of the Black Student Union. She is arguably the main subject of his investigation, and she herself certainly would not approve of his undercover work. It REALLY doesn’t help that she was pulled over by racist police officers after the speech and sexually assaulted during the stop, confirming everything Ture said in his speech while underscoring Stalworth’s inability to do anything about it.

So, how is he going to explain Ture’s promotion of revolution to the Police Chief? How will he explain his role in the police department to the love interest who sees police as the enemy? It’s a problem.

All of this comes before Stalworth’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan.

If there is any ray of hope to found in these initial scenes, it comes in the form of a night spent dancing in the wake of Ture’s presentation. Whatever Ture’s rhetoric, the radicals who brought him were content to spend the evening peacefully enjoying themselves on the dance floor. This gives Stalworth an angle, so to speak. He decides that these radicals are just talking about the violent revolution. They aren’t actually planning to kill anybody. It’s not the easiest message to sell. The Police Chief doesn’t buy it any more than Patrice and her companions buy the notion that police are meant to serve the community.

If there is a way to make police-work consistent with racial justice, Stalworth hasn’t found it when the larger plot kicks off, when Stalworth stumbles upon the opportunity to open up an investigation into the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). If the black radicals he’d been investigating at the start of this film weren’t really violent, the Klansman certainly were, at least enough of them to pose a threat. Of course this investigation is the real focus on the film. It’s also where the film departs most from the actual events of the real events in question. The real investigation led to the transfer of Klansmen within the military away from sensitive security positions; the movie investigation leads to a real crime.

What interests me about the story most is the larger racial politics of the film itself, and of the society it comments upon. One gets the impression Stalworth isn’t in the most tenable position to begin with. He knows very well the laws he is charged with enforcing hurt his own people, and he also knows anyone seeking to change that poses a real threat to the institutions he represents. Stalworth is caught in the middle of many forces he cannot controle; he has set himself up for a life-time of pushing back in all directions. The main plot seems almost to rescue him from the ambivalence of his position at the outset of the film.

…which brings us back to the political history of the film. Its final moments aren’t about the tricky life Stalworth has set up for himself so much as the rise of violent white nationalism with the advent of the Trump administration. Here Spike Lee drops the fictional story-line entirely and shows us real footage of  real white nationalists at work today. It’s a fitting shift, of course. Like the Klan in this story, Trump’s America has fallen on the nation like a great big old boot stomp on the many conflicts that used to plague our politics, conflicts that now seem subtle by comparison. Like the Klansmen in this film, the present administration and its supporters aren’t really all that interested in figuring out the details of social justice; they are happy to promote a clear and obvious vision of white supremacy. If the crime Stalworth thwarts in this move is fictional, the threats posed by a political regime wedded to the likes of the Klan is real. If justice eludes us, the present regime certainly ought to inject a degree of clarity into political questions of our own day.

If it isn’t entirely clear how we should handle racism in police practice, the sort of problem Stalworth is dealing with at the beginning of this film, it ought to be very clear that the present President couldn’t care less. Neither could those who support him. If it isn’t entirely clear how the rest of us should live together, it ought to be very clear that a good number of Americans no longer mean to do so at all, and that they have help at the highest levels, help they are using to undermine every means at our disposal for forking out any equitable solutions to the nations problems. The nation as a whole seems ripped away, like Stalworth, from the tricky problems about racial justice. What we have now is a problem much like that he faced in this film; how to stop those consciously working to ensure no such answers will ever be found.


Oh Come On!


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0752efbeda5d33092f99701b68c1b0b9I see this image from time to time circulating about the net. It passes, I suppose, for a kind of homage to Lozen, one of at least three women who fought beside Geronimo at one time or another in the course of his campaigns. Lozen, it seems was with him at the end. She was sent to Florida along with the rest of his warriors (and some of the scouts who had helped bring him). As mentioned in the meme here, the picture above was taken as she and the other prisoners waited in front of the train to be taken away.

So, what has me griping about this?

Well, take a look at the original. Lozen is the 6th figure from the right on the back row.

…and here is another close-up derived from that same photo:

So, just take a moment to compare the two and you might be able to tell what’s bothering me about the first photo.

Yeah, …they sexed her up.

The computer rendering in the first pic definitely lightened up her skin, brought her eyes out more, and gave the overall impression of much more delicate features. Hell, you can practically hear the photographer asking her to lick her lips and work it for the camera. The woman in this meme is a modern heterosexual (white?) male’s dream girl. From what I gather of the stories told about her, Lozen was no such dream.

Far from it!

The problem here isn’t necessary a question of objectivity. People make choices when they render a photo or tell a story. Maybe I’m being a little too cynical here, but I can’t help thinking the choices made in producing the image for this meme aren’t entirely in keeping with the spirit of the woman it portrays.

Special Spooky Halloween Post: When a Hungry Historical Context Gobbles Up Your Text


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45282907_10217765362510862_2935286808793055232_oOkay, 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.

Neo-confederates iz the cwaziest peopowz!

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.

Yes, lying.


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.

Pardon My Geekitide – Frame Collapse at the Game Table


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Works in Progress

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:

  1. As the host of an RPG campaign, I am often faced with these little moments of social brinksmanship, and I feel a certain sense of responsibility for containing the carnage, so to speak.
  2.  It strikes me as an interesting example of a larger social phenomenon, namely, the tendency for some stories to skip out of their own narrative frame and into the social context in which they are told.

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.


Other examples?

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.

Kavanaugh, Young and Old


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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: