Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why you can't argue with a Republican

Arguing across partisan divides is never easy, but you may have noticed that it now seems impossible. Shared facts - the basis of any rational discussion - no longer exist; basic existential claims like "Trump said one thing on Tuesday and a different thing on Wednesday" are as ineffective as complex arguments about moral theory. Literally nothing you can say seems to penetrate; no words seem to make any impact on your opponent's position or fervor.

The reason is because Republicans are now post-language. Words have become merely a sequence of sounds that one uses to establish dominance; they no longer have semantic content. When a gorilla bangs its chest and roars, the only intended meaning is a display of power and a demand for submission. If you were to ask the gorilla what ideas his roar was trying to convey, he would be mystified at your cluelessness.

If this surprises you, it shouldn't. This is the natural and inevitable destination of fascism, as made clear by history and the novel 1984. The raw exercise of power does not depend on ideas; indeed, it can only be challenged by ideas.

There are only two ways to achieve a goal: force and reason. And reason is merely the special application of force by an entity upon itself. To reason with a man is to convince him to use the power at his disposal to constrain himself, rather than to compel another.

Republicans, unable to convince a majority of other people that their goals are desirable, have given up on reason. They now operate solely in the realm  of force. Trump has made this clear many times; perhaps his most obvious tell was at a recent rally when smugly pointed out that he, and no one else, occupied the White House. Power, presented as its own justification.

This is why you cannot argue with a Republican. All you can do is deploy word-sounds that would make you dominant over them, to be countered by their word-sounds that reclaim dominance over you. To do anything else - to consider the concepts you advance - would be to deal in reason, and they have already conceded that is a losing battle.

This is why no Trump supporter cares about Trump's contradictions, or policy failures, or treasonous acts. Whenever you mention those, they are merely plays at dominance, to be refuted by displays of their side's power. Trump's position as head of the government is the only message they can hear.

The good news is, without power, the Republican project collapses. There will be no armed revolution on the part of the Right if their currently ongoing violent coup fails. They are bullies, and like all bullies, cowards once deprived of power. Without power, they have no organizing principle, and no language to communicate with each other.

The bad news is that the desire, no, the psychological need for racial and gender superiority, is so strong in so many of our citizens that it seems altogether unlikely that democracy can survive. A house  divided cannot stand, and 40% of our citizens want the illusion of white male supremacy more than they want reality.

The defeat of Trump in November is necessary to the survival of the republic; but not at all sufficient.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Richard Falconer's thesis confirmed

In my series Sword of the Bright Lady, the rate of expansion of the universe is revealed to be tied to morality: good acts slow it down, and evil acts speed it up.

Which is why the news that the universe is too thin and expanding too rapidly for our current models to explain does not surprise me at all.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #27

Against the goblins, part 1

After several days, two offers stand above the rest as serious enterprises.

Count Hooliliolae will underwrite a hunting expedition. He will send a troop of yeomen under the command of his paladin to hunt hobgoblins until their arrows run out. The party will screen the hunters from the goblin city and defeat whatever forces are sent out to dislodge them. In exchange they will get 1/2 of the tael from the hobgoblin hunt, and of course whatever tael and treasure they take off of the goblin defenders.

The Count of Eicoarraecae has a far more ambitious plan. In addition to his troop of ranked marksmen, he has a mercenary troop of heavy cavalry from the west and an alliance with a Free Company of heavy infantry. He believes that their combined strength is enough to take the goblin city itself. He will also dispatch three troops of archers to the rear, to hunt hobgoblins while the main forces assault and sack the city of Iryrr.

The party's task is to open the keep gates, in addition to battling the forces of the city. Their reward will be 1/3 of the booty from the city, plus 1/2 of the winnings from a troop of hobgoblin hunters, and of course the tael and magic from any foes they defeat.

The ranger and bard both vote for the hobgoblin hunt, as it sounds like the safer path. The rest of the party, however, are all-in on glory and adventure, even despite a warning from the bard Alys that the mission is dangerously risky. (The wizard pretends to be against the plan, but that is soon revealed as reverse psychology to trick the DM into increasing the rewards for the quest. Unfortunately for him the gambit fails, as all of the adventures are pre-generated by the Sandbox program.)

So early one morning, six separate groups set out from the southernmost county of Flefliquelp, all traveling independently so as to attract less attention. The party has been given an guide, a young man of no rank (or name) who knows the way; in previous adventures the Count has actually caught sight of the city before being forced to retreat.

They travel south through the wilderness without incident. These are, after all, relatively patrolled lands as they are directly between two kingdoms, and whatever monsters do live there are smart enough to attack retreating armies, not advancing ones. After eight days they cross a major river and are now within the goblin's domain.

The next day they make contact: a large patrol of goblin archers and two bugbear knights. The archers open fire and inflict measurable damage on the barbarian while the knights move to flank from either side. After that the fight is anti-climatic; their foes simply cannot stand long against a 5th level party. In particular the cleric's spiritual war-hammer has become a potent force, smashing through the knight's armor with abandon. We also learn that the bugbear knights aren't as dangerous as their fierce warhorses, whose hooves inflict most of the damage the party suffers.

A few hours later they encounter a swarm of rabid hobgoblins and three squads of rogues. The swarm proves to be less than impressive as the barbarian cuts through it like a blender. The carpet of waist-high creatures floods around the barbarian and ranger, trying to pull them down, but both men shrug off the creature's grasping claws and continue to slaughter the diminutive horrors. The ranger's wolf is not so lucky; it sinks beneath the waves of green flesh, where the hobgoblins pummel it with sticks and stones.

Perhaps concerned about the animal's welfare, the druid summons spiky plants upon the swarm. This quickly reduces the hobgoblins to a sea of corpses while the ranger and druid easily slip out of the area of effect.

The inevitable Entangle discomfits the rogues, who soon find themselves under swarm attack as well. However, they are actually 1st level, so two of them quickly escape the grasping grass. One dashes around from the left, leading the wizard's swarm back into the party's own lines; the other advances on the right and engages the barbarian in melee. He is surprised to discover that the rogue's fancy footwork and light rapiers make them very difficult to hit; on the other hand, as they prize defense over offense, they are not particularly effective at stabbing him either.

The rogue squad still stuck in the Entangle turn their crossbows on the druid, who discovers that the bolt is poisoned. His hands begin to shake uncontrollably, but as dexterity doesn't affect spell-casting, he ignores the effect.

Once the ranger begins shooting at the rogues fighting with the barbarian, it becomes clear that the battle is decided. One squad manages to flee, leaving a swarm that actually attacks the barbarian before the wizard can return it to the ether from whence it came, but that doesn't stop him from cutting down the rogues with a deadly whirlwind attack. The squad still stuck in the grass dies to another swarm.

The party is now showing some signs of damage, but a night's rest and the rest of the cleric's spells restores them to their full glory the next day. Which is just as well, as they face a larger force: five archer squads, three bugbear knights, and an ogre covered in well-crafted plate armor.

Another long battle ensues, the details of which are not worth recounting (mostly because the DM can't remember them - it was the third battle of the night, after all). Suffice to say it is a strong enough force that the party is somewhat concerned about proceeding.

Yet the morning finds them restored, and as they are packing up and preparing to advance, the druid spots an odd sight in the sky. It looks a bit like a golden-scaled alligator with wings flying a few hundred feet up. The creature is headed north, the direction they had just come from. After watching it for a few minutes they come to a horrifying realization. It is not a few hundred feet away, but rather, a few miles; meaning it must be the size of a city bus. It is, in fact, a yellow dragon.

The bard suddenly realizes why the domain is called the Gold Coast, and why every kingdom in the area seems to be some variant of the Yellow faith. This creature clearly has some kind of influence over local politics.

In the night they smell smoke. Surely they could not be sensing an attack on human lands, a hundred miles or more to the north! In the morning the druid turns into an eagle and sets out to investigate. What he finds only ten miles away is a scar in the forest, a long patch of burnt and blasted trees, and goblins cleaning up the pieces left behind, mostly chunks of well-charred horse meat.

He returns to the party with his findings and they rapidly agree that this evidence points to the destruction of the Count's force at the hands of the dragon. Now they must decide whether to continue with the plan or call it off. Ironically, the two who were most against the plan in the beginning are now the loudest voices for continuing. Neither the bard nor the ranger want to retreat without at least seeing the goblin city for themselves. And there is some concern that the Free Company may arrive at the rendezvous alone.

They march on, though cautiously. Nothing opposes them and they find themselves on the edge of a wood, looking into a goblin town. The houses are tall and narrow, with walls that slope out as they go up and a decided lack of windows. In the center of the town is a stone keep. Otherwise, the place seems deserted; a goblin city during the day is a ghost town.

As the day wanes on, no other troops appear. Neither the Count nor the Free Company will be keeping this date with destiny. The party discusses a full retreat, but again the ranger convinces them to wait out the night and see what's what.

This proves to be a bad decision. Once darkness falls the goblins send out an entire company under the leadership of a Director of the kleptocracy. Unbeknownst to the party, the messenger the Free Company sent to meet them and warn them off after the death of the Count has been captured by the goblins, so the goblins know what they are looking for. And they find it - the party, hiding in the woods, caught before they could run.

The darkness imposes certain constraints. Fighting by starlight underneath a heavy forest canopy implies at best shadowy illumination; their attacks will have a 20% miss chance. The goblins, of course, are immune, as they have Darkvision. On the other hand the goblins cannot see more than 60', so the combat is guaranteed to be at close range.

The party could use their light-stones, but this would mean that the goblins could see them at much longer range. And since the goblins have brought an entire troop of archers, the party decides this is a bad idea. There are also two squads of bugbear knights, two ogres, and a troll, in addition to the Director himself.

The archers are quickly trapped by an Entangle spell, which takes them out of the fight for the entire battle. The two squads of knights are reduced to two knights, thanks to the wizard's two fireballs and poor saving throws. This leaves the barbarian fighting face-to-face with a troll (thought somewhat protected as it is still stuck in the edge of the Entangle) while the ranger squares off with an ogre. The other ogre tries to flank and is faced by the druid, bard, and cleric.

Much glory ensues, including the wizard surviving a direct full attack from a vengeful bugbear knight and his deadly horse. Reduced to a single hit-point, the wizard retreats behind the cleric, who himself soon retreats behind the bard.

At one point the bard tries to get in on the swarm business, using bardic magic to call his own horde of bats down on the troll. Much to everyone's surprise the swarm simply ignores both troll and ogre and descends on the barbarian. The cleric realizes the monsters are protected by magic and quickly casts a potent dispel, rendering the creatures far more exposed than he realizes. The barbarian, recognizing that the troll is regenerating almost as fast as he hits it, steps back and resorts a Greek Fire grenade (in true D&D fashion he carries a small armory with him at all times). Because the troll's Resist Energy protection has just been dispelled, the troll begins to burn.

Enraged, the troll breaks free of the Entangle, catches the barbarian in both claws, and tears open his belly with its horrible fangs. The barbarian drops to the ground, deep into negative hit points.

Meanwhile the Director has shot a few poisoned crossbow quarrels into the cleric, and decides to come down out of his hiding place in a tree and finish off the bard with his deadly rapier. This proves to be a poor decision, as the bard is currently layered in magical buffs and surprisingly hard to kill. They trade ineffective blows for a while, until the bard has the bright idea of casting Blindess on the goblin. And of course it sticks - once again a foe of rank is crippled by a single spell.

The situation is still dire; the troll, in particular, is a rampaging beast. The druid shape-shifts into a dire bear and wades into combat, backed up the ranger's archery. Because the troll is on fire it no longer benefits from the darkness, and the two heroes manage put the troll on the ground before the fire goes out. However, it's still regenerating. The wizard solves that problem with a Flaming Hands spell.

On the other front the bard has gotten off a Sonic Shout, which is enough to finally bring down the last ogre. The Director, blind as he is, nevertheless dashes into the woods and tries to hide. The cleric and bard pursue, but even with a huge penalty, the goblin manages to elude them. He is a high-level rogue, after all.

But the cleric has been spending his skill points wisely, and on the second round of searching he overcomes the increasingly bad odds to stumble across the Director hiding under a log. Quickly he and the bard finish the goblin off before it can pull some other clever trick.

The barbarian is healed enough to become ambulatory (fortunately he made his save to stop bleeding, as no one was able to render him aid for several rounds), but the party is very low on magic and vitality. They move to a new camp and luckily there are no more goblin patrols that night. In the morning they consider whether they should stay and screen their hobgoblin hunting archers for more days, or just run now while the running is good. After all, they've scored thousands of tael and even some decent magic from the goblins; the barbarian appropriates the Director's magic rapier for his collection, while the ranger acquires Gloves of Dexterity +2. That leaves only a suit of magical studded leather, which no one in the party wants (it's worse than their magical chain mail). On a whim they give it to their brave nameless NPC guide, for whom it is truly a magnificent gift.

They choose to run, knowing that whatever force the goblins send after them next will likely be twice as bad as the last one. On their way out they run across their hobgoblin hunting yeomen and convince them to flee as well, relating the sad news that the men's lord is dead.

Back in Flefliquelp they discover their popularity has suffered. They are now associated with a failed campaign, and worse, the government has lost a Count and all of his retinue. This is a serious blow. The bard mitigates the damage somewhat by composing a song that makes it clear the goblins also lost the equivalent of a count; and their generosity to the un-ranked soldier does not go unnoticed by the common people. Reports of the dragon, however, are met with a shrug; everyone knew that was a possibility, which is why nobody marches armies around: it tends to attract the dragon. The bard, realizing that no one bothered to tell them about the dragon, immediately wonders if they were supposed to be the dragon-bait.

Briefly they debate cashing in their chips and returning home, but the ranger is keen on revenge. Goblins are among his favored enemies now and he longs to see their city in flames. The wizard is deeply intrigued by the dragon; he seems to have a developed passion for discovering artifacts or other ancient magic treasures, and a dragon seems like a likely place to start. Eventually they talk themselves into another try at the city of Iryrr. But they know they can't go alone.

So now the bard is researching the local lords, looking for who else they can rope into an assault on the city. They have damaged its forces; if they strike soon, the goblins won't have time to recover. If he can turn the misery of failure into a longing for fiery revenge, perhaps the party can add "sacking a goblin city" to their list of bloody accomplishments.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The punditry finally catches up to me

Many GOP Voters Value America’s Whiteness More Than Its Democracy

I've been saying that for years. Where's my newspaper column?

On the other hand New York Magazine probably doesn't need an Australian correspondent...