Monday, October 31, 2022

Epistemology and the Great Pumpkin

It's that time of year again, and many of us will once again watch one of the best-loved Halloween holiday-themed programs, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Like nearly everything connected to the Peanuts series, this brief show admits to a wide range of viewing: from the fun and wit of each vignette taken separately to the beauty of the color palette (and especially the visual storytelling of the opening scene of Lucy and Linus's journey to and from the pumpkin patch, the noting of the passage of time from late afternoon through sunset, dusk, and finally nightfall just by the sky alone being especially delightful) to something more philosophical. If A Charlie Brown Christmas explores what is, or should be, our motive for joy, the Great Pumpkin delves into the murky waters of epistemology of belief. That is, the story asks us to explore just what it is to believe something to be true, when are such beliefs justified, and under what conditions ought beliefs to be abandoned.

To be sure, the central question the characters of the show must confront is belief in the Great Pumpkin. As told by Linus, "On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys for all the children." His credo is more or less consistent, although he will later clarify that the Great Pumpkin brings toys to "all the good children everywhere" (emphasis mine). Indeed, this latter point serves as the foundation of two further claims on behavior: (1) one should not speak ill of the practice of waiting all night in the pumpkin patch to greet the Great Pumpkin ("Don't talk like that! The Great Pumpkin knows which kids have been good, and which kids have been bad. You'll be sorry!"), and (2) the sincerity of the pumpkin patch in which one waits the Great Pumpkin's arrival is crucially connected to his (non-)arrival ("...he respects sincerity"). Linus asserts (to Sally), "Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He's got to pick this one! He's got to! I don't see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there's not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see!"

Moreover, the Great Pumpkin's respect for sincerity calls for a high standard; even a momentary lapse is enough to be passed by without a visit, and so also without toys. Late in the evening, having been mocked by his closest friends and even his own sister, after he has been berated by Sally and blamed by her for have cost her the enjoyment of Halloween, having been fooled by the arrival of Snoopy the think (to the point of fainting) that he had been visited by the Great Pumpkin, Linus does not relent. Indeed, he is prepared to "put in a good word" to the Great Pumpkin to all those who have just abandoned him...except here he slips. He will put in a good word, he says, "if the Great Pumpkin comes." Immediately catching his error, in fear and horror he quickly amends his statement, "Good grief! I said 'if'! I meant when  he comes! I'm doomed! One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by." He then adds, in a deep cry of lament worthy of prophets and psalmists of old, "O Great Pumpkin, where are you?!"

Even so, after all that, after waiting in half-slumber in the cold night under the clearly insufficient warmth of his trusty blanket until 4:00 am (for we see his sister's clock when she awakes and, finding Linus not to be in his bed, goes to bring him back to the comfort of home), Linus remains a stalwart believer. In the face of what his friend Charlie Brown intends to be a kind of commiseration (and we'll get to Charlie in a moment!) that he, too, has "done of lot of stupid things" in his life, Linus replies in righteous anger: "Stupid?! What do you mean 'stupid'?! Just wait till next year, Charlie Brown!...I'll see the Great Pumpkin! Just you wait, Charlie Brown! The Great Pumpkin will appear! And I'll be waiting for him!"

At this point, it might seem fair to ask why Linus believes in the Great Pumpkin. We are given no indication that he has ever seen the Great Pumpkin, nor are we led to believe that he has ever been left any toys to mark the Great Pumpkin's coming. None of his friends or his family believe in the Great Pumpkin. In fact, apart from Sally, whose attitude towards Linus's belief we will explore below, all of his friends mock him and the Great Pumpkin as "crazy", "something that isn't true", and as we have just seen, "stupid". His own sister refers to the Great Pumpkin as a "stupid pumpkin" and her brother (to strangers giving out candy on Halloween, no less!) as her "stupid brother" and "stupid blockhead brother", and to his face as a "laughingstock". Linus admits at the close of his letter to the Great Pumpkin, "Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you," and in his (ironic) postscript, "P.S. If you really are a fake, don't tell me. I don't want to know."

However, we are never told the genesis of Linus's belief. No one else seems to believe, but by Lucy's admission, Linus has missed out (we take it that his belief is not new and his all-night vigil an annual event) several times on "tricks or treats" and the Halloween party that follows, certainly enough times to develop a reputation, one widespread enough to alarm his status-conscious sister, Lucy. So we will need to set aside for a moment how Linus came so to believe, noting only that he does now believe, has done so for some time, and has been willing to alter his behavior to align with his belief, even in the face of ridicule and scorn, as well as both the loss of bodily and social pleasures (going for "tricks or treats" and the party) and the enduring of physical hardship (sleeping outside in the cold late into the night).

Suppose we turn the question around. Suppose we ask why the other children do not believe in the Great Pumpkin. On the surface, this seems an unsound approach. Especially as there seems no evidence in favor of Linus's belief, why would anyone else need to explain their non-belief? Yet, things are not quite that clear. First of all, we know the other children do believe in something parallel, namely Santa Claus, to whom they write letters (consider Sally's letter, dictated to her brother Charlie, in A Charlie Brown Christmas) in protestation of their goodness and hoping he will visit them to bring them gifts. When Charlie confronts Linus about the Great Pumpkin and asks him when he will stop believing in something that isn't true, Linus's reply is telling, "When you stop believing in that fellow with the red suit and a white beard who goes 'Ho ho ho'."

Charlie has to admit that he and Linus are "separated by denominational differences." In other words, the difference between a belief in Santa Claus and a belief in the Great Pumpkin isn't that one is obviously true and the other obviously false, nor one more evident than the other (even if more widespread, but that at least plausibly attributable to, as Linus puts it to the scorn of Snoopy, "more publicity"). Charlie, Sally, Snoopy, even Lucy, believe in Santa Claus because they have been told about him, and by sources that they trust. One might well imagine that the parents of the Peanuts gang told their children about Santa, whose existence is also asserted in books, newspapers, radio, and television (this is the 1960s, after all), and reinforced by the fact the the belief is common and widespread. That the toys do come (for many children) every year certainly adds to the credibility of the story, but it could hardly generate the belief itself. Had they not been told about Santa Claus, they would not believe in him. Moreover, unless they were told by trustworthy sources who ought to know, they would not properly believe, i.e. hold to be true on the basis of the testimony of another.

What we need to see here is that belief is an ordinary, and indeed supremely rational part of our lives. Indeed, it would be irrational to hold that nothing is to be taken as true except what is known directly by our own natural powers. Such a view would yield a deeply impoverished life. Most everything we do every day, from reading the texts on our computer screens or tablets through asking for directions to even ordering a sandwich, all depend on holding things to be true that we only know to be true because we are being or have been told so. Even a hard-headed, skeptical, empirical scientist holds as true most of what he holds about the material world in virtue of believing the words of others. He may have reasons to believe them, and indeed he ought to; such is the nature of belief as opposed to credulity. Even so, his beliefs are rooted in at best second- or third-hand confidence, for example, being confident in a journal because it is run by people whose expertise is confirmed by academic institutions whose credibility is assured by the plausibly, believable work done there in the past, etc. This does not make the belief irrational, but it nonetheless shows that it is belief.

Charlie Brown presents an illustrative case, however, of the problematics of belief. We might think that his early refusal to be taken in by belief in the Great Pumpkin is a sign of Charlie's rationality. However, in the scene just prior to our learning about Linus and the Great Pumpkin, we witness Charlie once again duped by Lucy, flat on his back as he yet again tried to kick the football she was holding which she, once again, pulled away just as he prepared to kick it. At her initial offer to let him kick the ball, Charlie was reasonably suspicious ("You just want me to come running up to kick that ball so you can pull it away and see me fall flat on my back and kill myself!"). She had done this same trick often enough before in the past. However, Lucy changes the conditions. This time, she offers a signed document asserting that she will not pull the ball away. Charlie changes his attitude: "It is signed. It's a signed document. I guess if you have a signed document in your possession, you can't go wrong. This year, I'm really gonna kick that football!" Of course, he is mistaken.

But why? Charlie knows that he needs to rely on belief. He knows that certain kinds of communication are constituted in just such a way that we can, or at least should, certainly need to, rely on them to negotiate life. However, what makes Charlie's an interesting case is that his rational confidence in the reliability of communication is so repeatedly abused. The signed document, which is presented as a guarantee that his experience does not count against the current offer, fails to save him from falling flat on his back (Lucy's quip after the fact that the document was not notarized notwithstanding). Later, Charlie gets a letter inviting him to Violet's Halloween party, and such invitations are taken to be sincere, honest, truly reflecting the will of the one offering the invitation. Once again, Charlie discovered that there was a mistake, that he should have been put on the list of people not to be sent an invitation. What is supposed to be a guarantee of reliability (a letter sent through the post) turns out to be generative of error, or unwarranted belief. Later, when out for "tricks or treats", while all the other kids in his company receive candy of various kinds (or even money!), Charlie alone, repeatedly, and consistently, receives a rock, in violation of the unstated but presumably reliable custom that, in response to the cry "Trick or treat!", the child will be given candy or something else pleasant. Certainly not a rock. Apart from the (dark) humor of all of this, we also see undermined the notion that Linus is being unreasonable in his belief. If he is unreasonable, what are we supposed to make of Charlie Brown? How is Linus supposed to "know" that the Great Pumpkin is a fake when Charlie Brown cannot rely on the spoken word, the mail, or universal custom, even though he does rely on them (and suffers the consequences)?

Sally presents us a different case. She has never heard of the Great Pumpkin, and so she knows nothing either of Linus's belief or of the scorn which others direct towards Linus. In fact, she alone opines that Linus might in fact be correct. ("But maybe there is a Great Pumpkin.") It is significant that the arguments presented against Linus have nothing to do with the plausibility of his belief. The primary, repeated critique of belief in the Great Pumpkin, and the behaviors which that belief enjoins, is that to await the Great Pumpkin entails not going for "tricks or treats" or the Halloween party. That's it. That makes it stupid, crazy, blockheaded, a laughingstock. To be sure, Sally is suspicious of Linus's claims ("That's a good story."), particularly when aware that this year she would be able to go for "ticks or treats" and to the party, upending Linus's conviction that little girls are trusting of whatever is told them. Linus, that is, knows that belief in the Great Pumpkin will require trust in the testimony of another, as does Sally. She needs to check on any number of facts this way. When unsure whether begging for candy on Halloween is legal, she can only accept that it is on Lucy's word (which we have already seen Sally ought to consider of questionable reliability!).

So, what leads Sally to believe? What we see here is that Sally has initial motives for belief that are suspect. She is in love with Linus, and she is inclined to find what he says attractive not because what he says compels her credence, but because she loves the speaker himself ("You say the cutest things!"). In fact, this is why Charlie quickly takes her away from Linus. He knows that her motive to believe will not be grounded in her finding it plausible that Linus would know about the Great Pumpkin, nor in a kind of inner testimony responding to the claims themselves. Rather, her motive would be an excuse to spend time with the boy with whom she has fallen in love. ("What's going on here? What are you trying to do to my little sister?") When her desires shift, when her desire for the (now forever lost) opportunity to go out for "tricks or treats" or for attending the Halloween candy proves itself stronger than her love of Linus, she quickly abandons her short-lived belief in the Great Pumpkin.

What this reminds us is that belief will not infrequently, and sometimes always, require, in addition to the plausibility of the witness whose testimony we receive, a motive for holding that in which our own reason may itself be insufficient, either situationally or perhaps (in the case of religious belief) intrinsically, unable to compel consent. Of course, if there is no Great Pumpkin, then the explanation of Linus's steadfastness must be found elsewhere, in his psychology, or character, or some other factor. But supposing he had such a steadfast faith in what was beyond his power to know, but within his power to know must be, could he not accept his inner impulse to hold fast to such belief? Should he not be open to those inner promptings which, confirmed even if not compelled by evidence without, and stirring assent within? Should he not, in other words, come to and remain in faith?

Monday, July 6, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons & Prog Rock & Disco: On Progress & Tradition (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we saw how the game designer Matt Colville argued that his beloved prog rock and Dungeons & Dragons are both conservative in light of being backward-looking in their essential defense of the status quo and appeal to the past. This he contrasted with being progressive, represented in this typology by disco, as something which is forward-looking, about the now and the future, and committed to establishing a world more egalitarian, democratic, and inclusive.

In Part 2 of the series, we saw how Colville's own claims undermine the vision he presented in Part 1. Specifically, we saw how appealing to the past, indeed being backward-looking, can be a rejection of the limits and evils of the status quo, as seen in the Rebellion of Star Wars. We also saw how his notion of D&D as not any particular product or brand but a tradition, and a tradition which his whole online project is designed to present and pass on to a new generation, is a fundamentally conservative approach to the game.

All of this leads us to a foundational question: What is progress? At its root, to progress is to "step forward", but forward to what? The future? No. There is nothing especially interesting in "progressing" to the future, if that just means "getting older" or "being later than that which came to pass earlier". Rather, that to which one makes progress is a goal or an end. We progress when we do that which brings us closer to our goal, and we regress when we draw away from that goal.

Do we have any reason to associate progress with the future? In one sense we do, because in our own lives, we cannot be said to progress if we become worse, or fail to become better. Both stasis and corruption are contrary to progress, and as all of these are lived out in time, there is a perfectly unobjectionable sense in which we associate progress with the future. However, what is unjustified is the presumption, common from the late 18th century until the present, that the historical process itself has some intrinsic tendency towards the human good, the goal towards which humanity as such (inevitably?) tends.

For many in the late 18th century and widely in the 19th and 20th centuries, that end was a liberal one. On the liberal view, the human good is found in maximal human freedom, freedom to seek his good by his own best lights, and according to this "Whig" reading of history, there is an intrinsic tendency to freer, more liberal societies. Whatever is contrary to liberalism would not only be regressive, but also backward-looking, a resistance to the future which, on this view, will come to pass.

For Marxists, liberalism is seen at itself a sign of alienation, one which is opposed to that final unleashing of the fulness of human possibility which can only come about with the elimination of the social, economic, and cultural praxis that impedes the free, spontaneous activity of each to fulfill and perfect his powers, powers which, absent the false consciousness arising from capital, would also inevitably express itself for the good of each and the good of all. On the Marxist view, while this future will come about through revolution, it is nonetheless inevitable, the inexorable end of human activity. To resist revolution, to stand for liberal freedoms, is to be opposed to what must come, and thus to be reactionary, counter-revolutionary, and so opposed to the future itself.

Even milder versions of this view have found their way into the politico-cultural lexicon of recent years. It has become commonplace to accuse opponents of one's politics of social transformation as being on "the wrong side of history." On this view, there is only one (ultimate) possible outcome of human society, and this outcome will vindicate any and all efforts made to reorder society now in light of what the future inevitably will hold. All opposition, then, is necessarily irrational, as much as resisting universal gravitation or the Pythagorean theorem. Moreover, it is to be "trapped in the past", even to "turn back the clock", as though the promoted praxis is the only real expression of the march of time towards the future.

It is generally in light of some version of the above sentiments, i.e. those which perceive a tendency in human history towards some good, that we find the adjective progressive used to identify this or that policy. If the future is seen as one of liberal or libertarian freedom, then progressives will advocate a minimal state, maximal individual liberty in political and economic spheres. If the future is seen as one of material human flourishing and access to public goods, then, as was common in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, progressive politics were those which promoted public heath (sewers, water, etc.), limited hours, the weekend, increased suffrage, publicly-funded education, public parks and nature reserves, and the like. If a Marxist, a progressive politics will be illiberal, abandoning the notion of rights of the individual in place of revolutionary change to eliminate the social basis for the rise of capital.

Yet, even given this imaginative connection which progressive politics has with an imagined future, one which is seen as the lodestone of history, does that place it in opposition to being conservative, to being backward-looking or even reactionary? Perhaps for Marxists this is so, insofar as the Marxist reading of history rejects the idea of a better past to which we can turn for a model. The goal is always, ever, and only future. However, we have no good reason to think that the Marxists are correct here. Perhaps the best articulation of the fallacy of associating progress with a refusal to be backward-looking can be seen in C.S. Lewis' discussion of progress in his famous apologetic work Mere Christianity:
We all want progress, but progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it's pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
We can promote progress, in other words, by going back, by reaching back into the past for what has been lost, what has been forgotten, what was pointing us to the goal we seek. In the language of the moment, if we want to arrive at the good we seek, we sometimes need to "turn back the clock". We need to be "backward-looking", not because the past is better qua past any more than the present is best qua present or the future qua future. A backward-looking progress is not regressive, but restorative.

Indeed, this is one of the most important reasons for a society, whether on the small-scale level of fans of Dungeons & Dragons, or on the full-scale level of proper, human societies, to be traditional. To be traditional, to cultivate and prioritize tradition, is to accept that it is folly to presume that the options and preferences and perspectives of the present have some special value, or even worse, must be better in light of being more recent than that which has come before. As G.K. Chesteron reminds us in Orthodoxy, to be traditional is to be truly democratic, truly to give weight to the insight of one's fellow man:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father.
Moreover, to be traditional one must be conservative. To pass on what one has received not merely to suit one's own preferences, but to do justice to the whole of the wisdom of the past, and particularly that wisdom which expresses itself in what has continued to shape a community over the course of many years, across many different situations and by people of quite varied perspectives, requires resisting the temptation to edit, to cull, to "fix", to hide or obscure, merely because this or that feature of the tradition does not make sense to me or that I cannot provide a full account justifying it. To be conservative is to recognize that there is more wisdom to be found in institutions and practices long standing than is clear or able to be articulated by any one person, or even any one generation. Change will happen, of course, and in our engagement with what has been received, we will inevitably leave our mark. Yet, we do so best not by repealing what has been, but by receiving the whole as best we can and passing it on as best we know how.

Should we seek, then, to make our music, our hobbies, and more than that our society more inclusive? Make its riches more widely available, more widely enjoyed? Certainly! Are there aspects of what he do, how we have received our culture, our music, our hobbies, that communicate, even unwittingly, that not all are welcome, not all are invited? Sadly, this seems also to be the case. But will we find our solution in appealing to a non-existent future of our own imaginings, one which will necessarily be limited by our own best lights? Or, will we find a better way by passing on the fulness of what we have received, making best use of it, letting the double action of receiving and handing on guide us to invite to our tables those who also have a share in what has been?

Friday, July 3, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons & Prog Rock & Disco: On Progress & Tradition (Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at Matt Colville's argument that Dungeons & Dragons is fundamentally conservative, but that it need not be. We saw how he associated his beloved D&D with his beloved prog rock, and how both were inherently backward-looking. It was disco, not prog or punk, that was truly progressive, and thus his exhortation to his fellow gamers, "Let's be disco!"

More than that, we saw something of his account of what it is that makes something conservative and what makes it progressive. To be conservative, on his view, is to seek to maintain the status quo, or to return to the status quo ante. As such, conservatism resists attempts to include those who had been excluded, to center those who had been or are being marginalized. Such moves would be a threat to the status quo or the (imagined and romanticized) status quo ante.

In contrast, to be progressive is to be forward-looking, to be about the future. This is taken by Colville to entail being more democratic, more egalitarian, more inclusive. To be progressive is to turn not to the past for inspiration, but to seek out what new opportunities exist in the present, and to lean on them to produce something novel, which he takes to be what it is to be "towards the future". While a progressive can, on his view, value and even enjoy the past, he cannot make a turn to the past to be a means of going forward. Such moves would always entail, to one degree or another, a return to exclusion, to hierarchy. it might seem. Curiously, in the same Twitch stream, Colville also makes other claims which resist the point he was trying to make about progressivism and conservatism. Let's consider, for example, the admiration he has for what he calls "OG Star Wars". While he admits that Star Wars is in some way "backward-looking", being about a world "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," this is on his view because SW is a fairy tale, and so about what is true about the human condition in any time, even if it rhetorically sets its story in a far-away land and the distant past. Moreover, he takes the theme of the original movie (perhaps the original trilogy) to be about the resistance to a regressive, which he then elides and equates with conservative, machine world.

Can we take such a view seriously? What is conservative about the Empire? It's rather more obviously the case that the Empire stands not just for, in Obi-Wan's words about Darth Vader, something "more machine than man", and so more allied with the futurity that Colville takes to be the lodestar of progressivism. The Empire seeks to destroy what is old, what is traditional (the vestiges of the Republic), replacing them with cold, brutal efficiency, one which (apart from Vader and, we see later in the trilogy, the Emperor) has no room for religion, for the Jedi, dismissed as "sad devotion for an ancient religion," one that is mocked as ineffective and far inferior to the great monument to the future, the Death Star. The Rebellion is not a progressive force, but a conservative, we might even say reactionary one. It does not seek to produce a new order, but rather to reach back into the best of the past (the Republic, the Jedi Knights) and to restore them. The path that led to Empire was a corruption, and so the only way forward is by going back, picking up from where the digression happened and correcting the errors of the status quo.

Likewise, Colville appeals to novels in which he finds the progressive themes he champions, novels which all the same make use of Medieval tropes. In this vein, he appeals to T.H. White's The Once and Future King with its peasant King Arthur who seeks (even if he ultimately fails) to challenge and even alter the very feudal order and the knighthood that served and maintained it that traditional Arthurian lore and literature celebrated. He also (here and elsewhere) lauds Michael Moorcock's Elric series, which is rooted in the rejection, indeed the tearing down, of the corrupt, decadent status quo. I would venture to add that most of the literature of Appendix N (the list of works from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide of 1979 which noted works that inspired Gary Gygax and the other originators of the hobby) is disruptive of the status quo in much the same way. Science fiction and fantasy of the mid-20th century, even if not especially sensitive to issues of sexism and racism in ways palatable to early-21st century progressives, was nonetheless hardly friendly to tradition, to the status quo, to received belief and institutions. That is, however much it might use the trappings of a feudal, Medieval past, it did not tend to be sympathetic to the Medieval ethos any more than was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This is not Romantic literature, but thoroughly modern, even "forward-looking", while undoubtedly doing so (for the most part) by and for white men.

Finally, and more importantly for our purposes, Colville is actually something of a conservative malgré lui. He is hostile to the progressive project of "Year Zero," the desire (one might say fantasy) of tearing down what has been and starting over. Even while admitting that there is no revolution without bloodshed (which is a chilling sentiment, but I'll let it slide), he admits that the experiment of starting over from the beginning, without reference to what has been, has never ended well.

Indeed, the key to Colville's conservatism is his traditionalism, at least with respect to Dungeons & Dragons. On Colville's view, and I believe he is correct here, D&D is not this product, this particular brand and product line owned once by TSR and now by Wizards of the Coast (and so by Hasbro). As much as TSR in the past and WotC in the present might want you to think that to play D&D is to use their proprietary products, D&D is a tradition. It is what happens at the table, not what is found spelled out in this or that licensed product. Indeed, from the beginning, the game as it was played at Gygax's and Arneson's table was never really represented in any published version of D&D, and Gygax (when he wasn't speaking "authoritatively" as the CEO of TSR) always insisted that each table needed to play the game its own way. There was no "one true way" to play the game, but there were a set of practices, of general rules, of content, of shared lore and stories and characters from the tables of those who made and played the game. That is, there was a material tradition of D&D, which content and lore and set of practices was and continues to be handed on (i.e. tradition) by those who have played before and experienced the game in the past to new players. In fact, this act of handing on, of passing on the tradition, is exactly what Colville explicitly takes to be what his YouTube channel (especially the "Running the Game" series of videos) is all about!

Contrast this view of D&D as tradition with the very progressive account of D&D that was used by WotC to promote the then (in 2007) upcoming, Fourth edition of the game:

On the view of this promotional video, D&D is taken to be above all a ruleset, one which has moved from more to less primitive, and (so it would seem) from good to better to yet even better, through the passage of time. From the passion and limitations of the game in 1978, we are told that "technology was advancing, and so was D&D" so that in 1989, the game was better, but still far from perfect (e.g. THAC0). With the coming of Third edition (here represented by 3.5e in 2003), we are told that D&D was clearly now, with "deep game play" but with (told with a smirk) "involved" rules (cue reference to grappling). We are then led to see the wondrous world of 4e in the near future of 2008, where everyone around the table is playing smoothly and effortlessly, having unimpeded fun with the latest technology at hand. D&D, we are told, "would not be the game it is without constant evolution and innovation," but that, through all of this, "the game will remain the same."

As much as Colville has elsewhere praised the Fourth edition of D&D, it is hard to believe that he would have any sympathy towards this account of the game's history. While technology can and does impact art and games (another theme dear to Colville's heart), this account of D&D as an object, or a piece of technology, being ever refined and improved, becoming ever better with each passing year and each new edition, is hard, indeed impossible, to square with his understanding of D&D as a tradition. Traditions may be enriched or expanded, but they are not improved by the mere passage of time, nor are they innovated or refined. They are received, engaged, and passed on, inevitably touched by having been engaged, but ideally passed on as wholly as possible so that my choices, my preferences, what I take to be good game play, does not impede the reception by a new player of the game as a whole, a game which no book, no edition, no systems reference document or open game license, can ever by itself contain, encode, or transmit.

In the next part, we will finally take a look at a better way to understand what we mean by progress, by tradition, and by conservatism, even by reaction.

[To be continued...]

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons & Prog Rock & Disco: On Progress & Tradition (Part 1)

Race is in the air. Or, anti-racism is in the air. Especially in the USA, but even here in Europe, everyone seems, when not preoccupied with the viral unpleasantness, to be talking about race, racism, where we can find it, and what we ought to do about it. Even in places the general public might imagine to be far from questions of race and representation, of privilege and politics, these concerns have become, for many, more than pressing. Places like tabletop roleplaying games, and in particular the granddaddy of them all, Dungeons & Dragons, a hobby dear to my heart—even if one I do not have the time or opportunities to engage as I might like.

Now, for those who have been around D&D as long as I have, the question of race and racism is hardly new to the hobby, although perhaps of slightly newer vintage than the question of sex and sexism. Even so, we can rightly say that whether or not tropes in the game (orcs, drow, and other "evil races") map in any way onto our present political questions and struggles about race and racism has taken center stage. However, rather than talking about these things in general (although perhaps the question of race and monstrous races might be a worthy topic for a later date), I would like to take a look at a recent Twitch video by Matt Colville, "The Future of This Hobby". (Jump to around 18:15 if you want to hear what he has to say.) In this...what shall I call it? Video musing? Proto-essay? Extended thinking aloud while his fan base listens on?...Colville explores a certain tension he has begun to experience between media that he enjoys and has no intention of abandoning (in particular D&D) and what he takes to be the "fundamentally conservative" character of that hobby.

[For those who do not know, Colville is a game designer who has worked for years in both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games and who has amassed quite a following on social media as well as founded a gaming company (MCDM Productions) which, so far as I can tell, has been quite successful. I should also say that I enjoy his YouTube videos very much. He is a thoughtful gamer and has inspired many people to return to or, even more, try for the very first time to play a game he and I both enjoy. We are also basically the same age, although I began playing the game almost a decade before he did. We also both love Rush (the band, not the pundit)! What follows is criticsm in the academic sense, not an ad hominem attack.]

As a framing device, Colville considers music that he very much loves, and in particular progressive rock. While this music bears the identifier progressive, Colville thinks that this music (think Jethro Tull and Genesis) is basically "backward looking", "bucolic" and "pastoral", a "romantic [Romantic?] version" of England's past. It is the world of English folk song and madrigals, "progressive" in its use of decidedly older musical inspiration: whether the techniques of Classical music or those of jazz, but of a jazz already twenty to thirty years prior. Was progressive rock really progressive?, he asks. Or was it the opposite?

On Colville's reading, progressive rock, in its æsthetics and inspiration, is fundamentally conservative. By conservative, Colville means that which is committed to maintaining the status quo, to keeping things the way they are, or even to go back to the way that things were. What is the status quo he has in mind? It seems to be some kind of dominance, or at least centering, of the experience of white men. The æsthetics, and he thinks the appeal, of prog rock was designed for people like him, people like me. The rock out of which it progressed and the punk which rebelled against its (alleged) pretensions to overwrought complexity were likewise, on this view, conservative. Punk, after all, sought to return to how things were before prog rock made it complicated and inaccessible. However, the status quo ante which it sought was still a world of guitar rock and garage bands, i.e. the musical world of white men.

So, if rock & roll and prog rock and punk were conservative, what in the 1970s was progressive? While electronic music sought to be, it never managed to be truly popular. Or rather, it only became popular when it was merged with that dance music we know as disco. That's right, the truly progressive music of the 1970s was disco.

To make sense of this claim, we need to understand what Colville takes progressive to mean. On his view, disco was (and in its progeny is) progressive because it is (using his words): more democratic, more egalitarian, more inclusive. It showed and enacted the idea that there was something for people who felt excluded by (white) rock & roll (and prog, and punk, etc.), people from the city, women, persons of color, people from different (think marginalized) communities and ways of life.

More than that, however, Colville repeats over and over the contrast between backward-looking conservatism and forward-looking progressivism. To be a progressive is not merely to embrace democracy and equality and inclusion. It is to do so precisely because these are the future. The future, in other words, has a direction, and that direction is represented by the politics of progressivism. To be oriented to the past, even æsthetically, is to be at least partly aligned with maintaining the status quo (or even the status quo ante), and thus (although he never states it this baldly) with the politics of exclusion.

At this point (after briefly noting the "incredibly backward-looking" character of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth), Colville begins to pivot towards his main question, namely, whether Dungeons & Dragons is forward-looking and progressive, or fundamentally conservative?

Perhaps unsurprisingly given what he has already said, Colville has to admit that D&D, as we know it, is basically conservative. Its tropes are knights and kings and castles, which are for the most part left unquestioned. That is, D&D places near its center those very people whose existence depended on, indeed was dedicated to, the maintaining of the status quo. While he doesn't mention it in this video "essay", in other videos he likewise notes that the æsthetics of the game presume a (white) Middle Ages, and thus, like the prog rock also dear to him, presume people like him as the audience.

Yet, Colville wonders whether or not D&D might be able to be progressive. Or, in his more provocative exhortations, "Let's be disco!" Might not D&D find a way to engage what is new, be more egalitarian, more democratic, more inclusive? Might it not tell stories which do not center or presume white, male players? Might it not evoke a style of play that seeks to transform the status quo, or even to tear it down? Might it not, that is, be able to be future-oriented?

After all, Colville notes, "Disco won."

[To be continued...]

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Whither Christmas?

Well over two months ago, a great deal of bandwidth was spent on the theme of the proper day to begin the celebration of Christmas. A whole array of people, practicing Christians and the largely unchurched, believers and unbelievers alike, shook their collective finger in a censorious wag against those primarily commercial outlets — mostly retail stores and commercial radio — which had already by the beginning of November, and in some cases even before Halloween, to "celebrate" (which is to say, to market, sell, and package) Christmas. It was unacceptable, these critics noted, to anticipate the holiday so dramatically, suggesting not mere calendrical propriety, but even more the integrity of the holiday itself.

To be sure, the majority of those who clicked their tongues at the anticipation of Christmas were more than content to begin their own celebration of Christmas — decorated trees, carols, cookies, parties, Santa Claus and all — on the day after Thanksgiving. (For those not from the U.S.A., Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November.) Indeed, for such people, the Christmas season just means the season leading up to December 25, and perhaps, depending on when Christmas falls during the week, those days which come until the Sunday following, and for a few brave souls, until the celebration of New Year's Day. Indeed, so earnest were these folks at beginning Christmas at the "right time", that they flooded the very beginning of December with Christmas parties and Christmas concerts and Christmas shows and Christmas plays, while television happily complied and aired the most popular Christmas movies and specials so that, by about half-way through December, most of the public celebration of Christmas, apart from the once-vilified commercial outlets, has come to an end, leaving only the private celebrations in one's home or hotel or cruise ship, as a reminder to pierce the egg-nog-addled brain that Christmas had not yet come.

Ironically, these critics came themselves to be the subject of criticism, this time from earnest Christians. They were reminded that the Christmas season does not end with Christmas, but rather begins with Christmas. Without denying the legitimate place of joyful anticipation during December, they reminded whoever would listen that Christmas needed to be kept from Christmas onward, that the Twelve Days of Christmas are not a kind of countdown (as television stations hosting their own "30 Days of Christmas" from Thanksgiving onward would have the viewer believe), but an extended celebration of Christmas into the New Year. (I will here set aside, without prejudice, those Christians who keep the Julian calendar, and therefore whose December 25 is the rest of the world's January 7, and therefore whose Christmas has just begun!) Many laudable customs, like the decorating of the tree, considered by some to be de rigeur after Thanksgiving, were not so long ago held off until quite late. (My mother tells me that, as a little girl, in her household the tree was decorated by Santa Claus when he visited on Christmas Eve, although her father noted that Santa needed a little help, so he would put the lights up early!)

However, what I want to consider here is not when Christmas ought to begin, but when it should properly end. As we know, the ersatz Christmas that begins after Thanksgiving ends sometimes as early as sundown on December 25, occasionally until New Year's Day, but almost certainly never much after, and most always well before. What, however, can we say about those Christians who want to keep their devotional Christmas more in line with the Christmas season as understood by the Church?

It is possible, of course, to give a definitive liturgical answer to the question of the end of the Christmas season. At least in the Roman rite, Christmas comes to a close with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls either on the Sunday following the Epiphany (or, occasionally, the Monday's complicated) for those following the calendar of the the Ordinary form, or the Octave day of the Epiphany, which is to say, January 13. Does that mean that faithful Catholics ought to keep their decorations up — trees, stockings, lights, and all — until the celebration of the Lord's Baptism? Well...maybe. The thing is, while the devotions and customs of the Christian faithful ought to respond to the liturgical life of the Church, it's rare that they will coincide precisely, and generally attempts to force them to do so produce unhappy effects. Said simply, the date when one takes down a tree is not covered by rubrics or canon law, nor should it be!

More than that, the Christmas season has several endings, nested as it is like a Russian doll. At the heart of Christmas is the Christmas octave, from Christmas itself through New Year's Day. A few days further, on the Fifth of January, closes the famous Twelve Days of Christmas, followed by Epiphany, another turning point, which is itself followed by a period of time (traditionally another octave), closing with the Baptism of the Lord. So, you could say Christmas "ends" on January 1, or January 5, or January 6, or as late as January 13.

But what do we say of customs, like those in Italy, where lights are kept up well past the Octave of the Epiphany, and the presepi, the Nativity scenes remain until the beginning of February? Are the Italians merely stubborn? Is it just a ploy to attract shoppers to the ubiquitous January sales?

Actually, the liturgy itself offers another answer. While the Christmas season may be definitively over by January 13 at the latest, there are echoes of Christmas that continue on. At Compline, at least in the Roman rite, the antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater, first heard at the beginning of Advent, continues to be sung until February 2. The votive Mass of the Virgin on Saturday also retains elements of Christmas, including the Gospel of the Mass of Dawn on Christmas Day, recalling the wonder of the shepherds as they saw and then pondered what they had seen and heard, the Virgin meanwhile treasuring these things in her heart — and in the Dominican rite, also the Preface of the Nativity is used — all the way until February 2. Why February 2? Because on that day the Church commemorates the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, and the Purification of his Blessed Mother, on the fortieth day in accord with the Law, the Fortieth Day of Christmas (imagine that carol!). Even in the midst of Septuagesima, as it will be this year, the Church will suspend what she is doing and look back to the joy of Christmas Day and the mysteries celebrated during the Octave and the Twelve Days and the Epiphany (and among the Dominicans, will take up again the Christmas sequence Lætabundus). Christmas, in short, has a long arm, and its deep tones leave lingering echoes in the heart of the faithful.

So, should the tree come down? Should you take down your lights? Sure, if you like to. But, if something in you wants to keep a memory of Christmas through Candlemas, then you have good company in the liturgy of the Church!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas (Mass at Midnight)

Isaiah 9:1-6 / Titus 2:11-14 / Luke 2:1-14

In The Adventures of Pinocchio, we find our puppet hero passing through the city of Catchfools to come to the Field of Miracles, where he intends to dig a hole in the ground and bury his few remaining coins, in the absurd hope that they will grow and multiply. In the city, Pinocchio noticed that all the streets were filled with hairless dogs, yawning from hunger; with sheared sheep, trembling with cold; with combless chickens, begging for a grain of wheat; with large butterflies, unable to use their wings because they had sold all their lovely colors; with tailless peacocks, ashamed to show themselves; and with bedraggled pheasants, scuttling away hurriedly, grieving for their bright feathers of gold and silver, lost to them forever. All of these fools, caught by an illusion, by folly, by the hope of miracles, have lost whatever they had of value. Pinocchio, seeing all of this, seeing without confusion the suffering which has come from their folly, goes all the same to the Field of Miracles to bury his money.

For the world, the blessed hope of the Church, the hope of the Christian faithful in the appearing of the Infant Christ in Bethlehem, seems to be like the passage of Pinocchio through the city of Catchfools. We see, as he did, the suffering of all of those who have lost so much because of their dreams of beatitude, and seeing this, from the point of the world, we have not realized the truth. For the world, it is not that the celebration of Christmas is unpleasant. The unbelieving world likes the nicely decorated trees, the Christmas lights in every city street, the merry songs, the wonderful food. The unbelieving world also enjoys a chance to have a holiday with family and friends, free from the grind of daily work. The world also agrees with the Church in finding in the celebration of Christmas a reason for goodwill, to be a bit more generous, more patient, to be eager to do what is good to the needy in their own community and throughout the world. In this sense, the world is grateful for the gift of Christmas.

However, the world accuses us of mistaking these appearances, all this outward show of Christmas, as something other than mere appearances. The world insists that suffering, poverty, ignorance, conflict — that these are what is real, and that the sweet dreams of Christmas are but passing shadows. It insists that we are crazy, that we are fools caught up in a beautiful story — a very beautiful story — but a story, a false story all the same. Our decision to reject as godless all the desires of the world, our intention to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, and thus our decision to live as though this world were not all that is, but rather to live as we await something more glorious — all of this is for those who do not believe a reason to look upon as as Pinocchio in the city of Catchfools, surrounded by evidence of the folly of trusting ourselves to miracles, but eager to do so all the same.

We, however, have a wisdom in our celebration of Christmas, indeed in our whole Christian lives, more profound than that of the world. It is not that we deny the reality of loss in our lives, in the lives of all, or especially in the lives of the poor. Rather, in our adoration of the poor Infant in the midst of the poor shepherds, we are more responsive to the difficulties of life, more aware that life in God — the very life of God incarnate — does not exclude suffering. Even so, with the eyes of faith, we can see in poverty and suffering, especially in poverty and suffering, the presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us, our great God and savior Jesus Christ. In being aware of his gracious presence, those on their sick bed are cheerful, those in foreign lands feel close at home, those who struggle are patient in their great hope. By the light of the cave of Bethlehem, the Christian faithful see what the world longs to see but does not — the Good News of the glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. We see by the radiant beams streaming from the Infant's face the appearance of the glory of our great God, a promissory note of the riches of the Kingdom of God that no power, howsoever it try to impede or prevent it, can ever succeed in doing so.

Dearly beloved, we are not fools caught up in the sparkling lights or twinkling tinsel in our streets or shop windows. We are not gullible puppets, burying the few joys we have remaining to us in our rejecting godless ways and worldly desires, in our sober, just, and devout living. We are the poor shepherds living in the fields and keeping the night watch, the watch of the night of this world — the night of suffering, of poverty, and of sin — and without denying the fact of that night, we have received the news of the great desire of all the nations, of the birth of that hope which answers every one of our desires. We have received the angel's message, foolishness to the world and at the very same time the proclamation that responds to every human heart: Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday of 6th Week (Year II)

Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10 / Mark 8:14-21

Is there a point of no return in the spiritual life? Can we ever come to a place where we find that there is no going back, from which we cannot and will not hear what God has to tell us, however insistently? We might think that there is no such point, no such place. After all, God's mercy is greater than any of our sins, indeed than all of our sins. Moreover, his patience is surely greater and more long-suffering that our stamina, than the force that fuels our rebellion against him.

However, the Scriptures today suggest otherwise. God's decision, rather his judgment of the human race at the time of Noah is quite clearly final, even while the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve remain alive, if not well. His decree is clearly beyond recall; apart from Noah and his family, and those representative pairs of the clean and unclean animals, none will be spared. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus raises a worry which amounts to the same idea. In response the the disciples confusion over the meaning of "the leaven of the Pharisees" and "the leaven of Herod," and thinking these to be some peculiar way of noting that they were without provisions, Jesus sighs deeply. His concern is this: Are the disciples confused because they do not yet understand (which suggests that they are slow to believe, but may still come to understanding), or is it because their hearts are hardened (and so, by implication, they simply will not understand, or more accurately, like the Pharisees and like Herod, they will to misunderstand)?

Of course, it is spiritually fatal to imagine either or ourselves or of others in this life that we have reached this point, that point when in our hardness we have been passed over, and will no longer see or hear. To imagine so would be the sin of despair, and so would result in the end of charity in the soul. Even so, it is equally dangerous to fall into presumption, to imagine that we can never turn ourselves irrevocably away from God, that because we do not see ourselves as hardened moral monsters, that we don't have anything to worry about.

Today, brothers and sisters, is Shrove Tuesday, and in the midst of the pancakes glistening with butter, syrup, sugar, jam, and spirits, and while we make merry with what may well be our last taste of sweets, meat, and the fruit of the vine or of the grain, it is also a traditional day to go to confession, to be shriven, which is to say forgiven of one's sins. The old wisdom was not that one should use Lent to prepare for a full-bodied confession right at the season's end, but rather that, before the penitential disciplines are upon us, we should free our souls of the sins that still bind us. We are freed by the sacrament so that we might enter Lent more openly, to receive God's words of warning and encouragement more fruitfully, free from any and all presumptions about our virtue, and ready to see with our eyes, hear with our ears and understand with hearts made soft, warm, and receptive to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.