Sunday, July 20, 2008

Swiftboating: The Lesson Scholars Must Learn from Politicians

I. The Whisper Campaign Against Obama
So, recently I was reading a piece about a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies (Albert Einstein's old stomping grounds) who decided to study how viral e-mail attacks work by trying to trace back the 'Obama is a Muslim' chain e-mails to their source. The article* makes for interesting reading because, despite her ultimate failure to identify the author(s), she did work out the methodology involved, which relies upon online discussion sites or mailing lists of like-minded individuals. Essentially one group who is passionately anti-Obama generates the lies and smears, while another who is just as self-motivated circulates them as widely as possible. There's no fact-checking, no attempt to separate fact from fiction: if a new story clicks with their preconceptions they embrace and dissimulate it.

Obama's Response
Obama had two models for fashioning his own response to lies. The Bill Clinton model calls for an immediate all-out battle against the liars. The John Kerry model calls for staying out of the fray. Mr. Obama noted who became president and made his choices accordingly.

Obama's Result
We're months away from the election but we can already see the positive results Obama's approach is having. By vigorously attacking lies he has remained a viable candidate among voters willing to make decisions based on evidence.

II. The Campaign Against Walter Hooper
Now, all this sounds remarkably familiar, because I see the same pathology over in Lewis studies behind the thirty-year slander campaign against Walter Hooper. Hooper's case is a bit different, in that we know Kathryn Lindskoog is the person responsible for inventing the slanders and the people who circulate her libels usually post online under their own names. But otherwise the two cases are markedly similar: Lindskoog invented the lies and her adherents circulated them as widely as possible, adding to them as they went. Even Lindskoog's being caught forging evidence to support her theories and, when caught, lying about it, and her death a few years back, has done little to stem the tide: new permutations of the same old slanders continue to be posted and re-posted at every opportunity, smuggled into reference books (most recently the four-volume set C. S. LEWIS: LIFE, WORKS, & LEGACY [2007], more notoriously the C. S. LEWIS READERS' ENCYCLOPEDIA [1998]), and in general persist in a sort of toxic half-life.

Swiftboating Hooper
Part of this no doubt is due to Hooper's decision not to sue Lindskoog when she first started printing her libels. Thus we were spared the spectacle of a priest suing a woman in a wheelchair -- which the English tabloids would no doubt have loved but could hardly have reflected well on Lewis's reputation. But, just as with Jn Kerry's failure to respond to Karl Rove's smear machine, some mistook Hooper's hesitation for an admission of guilt. In retrospect, we can see that Fr. Hooper was 'swiftboated' before we had a word for it.

III. Indifference to Evidence
It's unfortunate but not surprising that Hooper shd have suffered baseless attacks -- the phenomenon is a familiar one in our times. What is surprising is the degree to which the smear machine continues to spit out attacks even now -- for they still pop up on a regular basis on discussion lists, often gratuitously inserted into quite unrelated discussions. When confronted with evidence that supports Hooper's position, his detractors dismiss it out of hand but offer no evidence to support their own positions.

The Lesson
If someone disagrees with your thesis, look forward to a stimulating intellectual debate. If someone lies about you or your work, squash the lie fast and hard. Your happy peaceful life depends upon it.

--JDR & JC.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More Congratulations

So, a while back my friend Wolf started a new way to finance rpg products through the Open Design patronage project, where subscribers to the project can request specific topics be included. It's proven v. successful, so much so that now it's been announced as one of the finalists for this year's Diana Jones Award, a quirky award intended to reward excellence in the hobby gaming community. Here's the award site's official description of Wolf's project, and why it deserves to be a nominee:

Open Design began as an experiment in funding the development of roleplaying game supplements. Wolfgang Baur—a highly respected, long-time Dungeons & Dragons editor and designer for TSR and then Wizards of the Coast—went back hundreds of years to dig up the concept of patronage, add a few modern twists to it, and apply it to the problem. He posts a project and publicizes it along with a monetary threshold. When the funding his patrons chip in reaches that threshold, he starts on the project in earnest. Baur supplements his exemplary work by letting his patrons suggest various directions for each project and then allowing them to look over this shoulder as he works. Each project becomes a master-level class on adventure design for those privileged to be a part of it.

For more on the award, see


Monday, July 14, 2008

The Great Sort-Out

So, while Janice was away a few days last week in Sequim (wh. it turns out is pronounced 'skwim', rhyming with 'swim') on business, I got busy and emptied ten more boxes in the Box Room, their contents now sorted, filed, shelved, consolidated, or thrown away. Four more boxes worth of books, rpgs, boardgames, cards, cassettes & cds, et al from other parts in the Box Room were also set aside to give away. The Pendragon gamers on Friday night got first crack and lightened the load a bit (goodbye HeroQuest, Axis & Allies: D-Day, Vampire The Masquerade boxed sets), while I dropped off the remaining boardgames at the Children's Hospital Store in downtown Kent today (my first visit there; nice place). Tomorrow or the next day I make a run to Half-Price Books with a boxful of rpgs (goodbye Amber, 7 Seas, In Nomine, Buffy, Hunter The Reckoning, &c.) and a half-box of books (goodbye complete Cordwainer Smith, &c.). All in all I got rid of about a third of one major stack of boxes and almost a quarter of the contents of some game bins, which feels like real progress.

The next stage hinged on a discovery on Thursday. I'd been looking since I started preparing my talk for MERPcon for my binder with the Middle-Earth: The Wizards ('METW') cards in it and not having any luck. Turns out the reason why is I was convinced it was in the upstairs closet off my office, where I keep it, while it had actually been boxed up and moved downstairs, probably three or four years ago. argh. Now that I have it again, and could see what cards I was missing, I took out the unopened booster packs a friend at Wizards had given me two or three years back when he was clearing out his closet and opened them all. While sorting through them was a good way to re-familiarize myself with the cards, the results were a bit disappointing: out of about twenty boosters, plus an unopened box with thirty-six more booster (about 540 cards in all), I got only six of the twenty-seven I'd been missing. So now I'm only twenty-one cards shy of a full set (of the original set; I didn't follow the later releases, of which there were many), but trying to fill the gaps wd be prohibitively expensive, not to mention time consuming. But, just in case anyone has some spares they're interested in parting with to a good (or at least appreciative) home, here are the lacuna in my collection:

CHARACTERS: Arwen, Frodo [2]
RESOURCES: Clear Skies, Dwarven Ring of Bavor's Tribe, Favor of the Valor, The Morannan, Sacrifice of Form, Shadowfax [6]
SITES: Minas Morgul [1]
HAZARDS: Khamul the Second Nazgul, The Fourth Nazgul, The Seventh Nazgul, the Ninth Nazgul; Agburanar, Assassin, Fell Beast, Lost in Dark-domains, Morgul-horse, Silent Watcher, Thief, Traitor. [4 nazgul + 8 others]

And now back to the current task. Years ago I got a boxful of BLOOD WARS cards that were being thrown out at the old TSR, meaning to sort through them and get rid of the duplicates. After two abortive tries in the last few years, I'm now in the midst of it: cards scattered everywhere, spread out to take up the whole of the dining room table. I don't know how many cards there are in all, but the box I've been keeping them in has eight long black trays, each a foot long, and each filled with cards, so all told piled end on end they'd make a stack eight feet tall. In short, a lot of cards.

The sorting is now almost halfway through, and when it's done I'll have a huge pile to go into recycling (where the first lot have already gone) and perhaps one trayful to keep, mainly for the DiTerlizzi art. It's hard not to ruminate on the chances of fate: BLOOD WARS by Steven Schend was TSR's second collectable card game, after SPELLFIRE, and it completely failed to find an audience, despite being a much, much better game. Had BLOOD WARS, a sophisticated game more like WotC's JYHAD (which came out about the same time), been TSR's entry effort into the field I think TSR would have gotten a lot more respect from the gaming community and made deeper in-roads into the burgeoning ccg market. Alas for might-have-beens, now marked by a box full of old cards. At least they'll make beautiful bookmarks . . .


Monday, July 7, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Worst Essay: "Priestesses in the Church"

"Priestesses in the Church"

This piece, written almost exactly sixty years ago, first appeared in TIME AND TIDE in August 1948, apparently in response to a piece by a Lady Marjorie Nunburnholme that had been published there a month earlier; it appears in the ESSAY COLLECTION but is best known for its inclusion in GOD IN THE DOCK: ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS (ed. Walter Hooper, 1970). The issue at hand is CSL's taking a strong stand against a proposal to allow women to be ordained as priests within the Anglican church -- an oddly timely topic, given that just today comes word that a church council has approved setting in motion a program that will see women serving as bishops in England within a decade* (women have already been serving as Anglican priests since 1994; the U.S. Episcopal Church has had women as priests as far back as 1974). So in a very real sense, by arguing against the ordination of women, Lewis is very much on the Wrong Side of History. This would probably not have disturbed him much, since he enjoyed the pose that he was the last Old Western Man, nobly defying the iniquitous Modern World. But from our point of view, it has the deceptively disarming effect of making his argument appear quaint, which undercuts just how dangerous his line of reasoning remains today.

Calling Lewis's piece an argument is something of a misnomer, since at the outset he admits that any logical consideration of the case would go against him and abandons logic to defend his position by saying we should rely instead on our gut instincts ("prejudice begotten by tradition") in matters of faith -- a position strikingly at odds with his famous account of his own (reason-based) conversion in SURPRISED BY JOY. Instead, in this essay he asserts that if the mental image of a woman serving communion makes someone wince, it's a sign from God that women aren't intended to play that role. But the argument that our prejudices are the surest guide to God's intent is a dangerous claim, one that could be used to justify all manner of horrors (racism, misogyny, homophobia, &c); an instinctive revulsion against sharing some privilege we enjoy is more likely to be a warning of shortcomings in our upbringing or character.

Nor does Lewis's wonderful gift for analogy help him much here. As his symbol of the immutable essentials of eternity that reflect the right relationships between the sexes, he choses --a formal English dance of the late 18th/early 19th century. But surely nothing is more artificial, more an arbitrary product of its place and time, than a formal dance. And, as an arbitrary culturally-specific artifact, it's no evidence at all of Things Eternal; it's as if Charles Williams in THE GREATER TRUMPS had specified that the dancing figures of the Tarot were doing the Charleston.

Why the Worst of the Worst? Essentially because of Lewis's assertion near the end, with protestations of humility, that women simply cannot represent God to other humans, that only Men can do that --which sounds suspiciously like Kipling's White Man's Burden, which the English used as a rationale to conquer and subjugate a large portion of the world (much to the rest of the world's dismay). CSL generally made a point of avoiding doctrinaire issues in his religious works, and this exception to the rule shows the wisdom of his usual practice.


*At the same time, the council rejected a proposal for "flying bishops", so that those made uncomfortable by the idea of having women in spiritual authority over them could avoid joining the 21st century and be ministered to solely by male bishops; for the report, and the dismay of a very vocal minority at the news, see

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Antici- (pause) -pation

So, yesterday I got a notice that my copy of TOLKIEN ON FAIRY STORIES, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, is now on its way to me from

Next week shd be a very good week.

--John R.

current reading: THE SECRET HISTORY OF MOSCOW by Ekaterina Sedia [2007]