Narrative and free agency in game design

World of WarcraftAs a former World of Warcraft player, I can attest to how compelling it is to play an immersive, massive, 3D role-playing game. Acting out scenarios in a fantasy world is more involving than merely reading a fantasy novel. You get addicted to being part of the narrative, to swinging the sword instead of just reading about it.

Just as when you’re reading a good novel and can’t stop turning the pages, you keep playing to see how the next chapter/adventure/scenario plays out, especially when you don’t always have to follow the script.

It’s not so much about the gameplay, as much as it is being part of the story. Well-designed games compel you to continue playing through a combination of action, puzzle solving, rewards and group activities.

WOW is an MMO – massive multiplayer online game – set in a fantasy world that draws much of its substance from Tolkein and other fantasy writers. Many of the role-playing games (RPGs) follow the pseudo-Tolkein model, but most follow paths laid out in fantasy literature (i.e. characters and novels by Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft or more modern writers).

WOW is, of course, not the only game that offers that sort of setting, but at eight years old, with about 12 million subscribers, it’s both the largest and longest-lasting of them. It thus becomes the yardstick for measuring any other game in the genre. None of its competitors – Rift, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings,Star Wars, etc. – have a fraction of the players.

RPGs owe their ancestry to a small box set of rules published in 1976, called Dungeons and Dragons. Written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (whose name subsequently disappears from the list of authors in later printings), it essentially created the standards for fantasy role playing that are still in use today.

This is documented in great detail in Jon Peterson’s 700-page tome, Playing at the World (his blog is here). It was reading this book that got me thinking about game design again (and to dig through what few old wargames and rules books I have in the basement…).

In his introduction, Peterson identifies “freedom of agency” as one of the key components, “as much a necessary condition for inclusion in the genre of role-playing games as is role assumption.” The ability to make choices of action, of goal, and behaviour are central to a compelling game. In the Wired interview, linked above, Peterson defends gaming,

“…not as fads or disposable products of pop culture, but instead as a legitimate part of intellectual history, heirs to a tradition that stretches back centuries and involves many great thinkers and innovators.”

Which is similar to what I’ve been writing about for a few decades.* Gaming, at least in the simulation-style games, is not merely a pointless pastime, but rather an intellectual exercise.

Computer games have both redefined entertainment and set the bar for hardware and software development. Games are incredibly demanding of computer resources compared to, say, a spreadsheet. Consider the processing required to keep track of dozens, even hundreds of players who are interacting in 3D space in realtime, plus all of the geography, terrain, in-game trades and purchases, combat, weather and environmental effects. And to keep everyone in the game fully informed of all the events, locations and activities of their characters, pets, party members, resources, movement paths, mail… it’s a stunning amount of work.

Beyond the coding, there are some basic components any game needs to be successful:

  • Clearly defined purpose and goals;
  • Challenge;
  • Identifiable opponents to overcome;
  • Reward for accomplishing goals or overcoming challenges;
  • An understandable and accessible board geography where the game is played;
  • Clear and concise rules.

RPGs add other elements to create that immersive experience, including:

  • Connecting story/narrative;
  • Character choice, advancement and development;
  • Consequences of actions or behaviour;
  • Alternate races (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.);
  • Role assumption (taking on the persona of a character in the story);
  • Free agency (the ability to move and act independent of the script);
  • Believable fantasy, alternate or futuristic world environment;
  • Clear sides with which the races align and which have competing goals.

Computer games have additional components:

  • Good graphics and visual appeal;
  • Good AI (artificial intelligence) and NPCs (non-player characters);
  • Believable environmental interactions, simulated physics and effects;
  • Appropriate sound (and sometimes music);
  • Interactivity with NPCs, environment;
  • Social activity (in MMOs).

Some RPGs (i.e. Fable, Witcher, Fallout 3), have more complex “consequences” built into decision making within their games. Certain choices – such as attacking or stealing from non-player characters (computer-controlled NPCs) or how you answer their questions – affect the way others relate to your character. How well these mimic actual social or personal behaviour is debatable. Mostly they seem to me merely designed to add chrome to role assumption. In some cases, they don’t really affect the game or quests.

Since these are solo games, rather than MMOs, you can usually save your game before you make a choice, then replay it with a different choice if you don’t like an outcome. That tends to dissipate the suspension of belief necessary for immersion.

I don’t include “fun” in any of these lists because fun, like beauty or taste, is subjective. Players will gravitate to the games that provide the highest entertainment value for their own interests and aptitudes. I, for example, never found WOW’s battlegrounds “fun” but always enjoyed questing and exploring (solo and in parties). Others eschew the quests for the PvP combat in the battlegrounds.

Can the storyline absorb the players sufficiently, for long enough to suspend belief, deeply enough to make you care about both the characters and the action? It depends on how well the narrative is scripted. A good storyline has to be crafted as carefully as a good novel and needs to generate a similar emotional response.

Clearly, however, game narrative is very different from a storyline in a book, since choice is a key element in gaming.

Quests can also be seen as ‘micro-narratives.’ In many games, the plot or story is merely a shell that contains numerous micro-stories presented as quests. Sometimes these are dynamic, so that the nature or goals of quest B depends on how or how well you accomplished quest A. However, the shell story needs to be coherent so players don’t simply feel they’re moving from one mini-game to the next for no reason.

A lot of games fall down with thin stories, pointless quests (collect X eyeballs or Y spleens), and predictable A-to-B-to-C plots. And too many depend more on action to move them along rather than plot or participatory narrative (i.e. Diablo III).

Patrick Holleman, on the Game Design forum, writes,

“…the difference between traditional games and videogames is that videogames have a world in which everything about the game, except for controller input, takes place. This world is created, controlled, and sometimes populated by continuous and discrete artificial intelligence. The player is a guest in that world, the central participant in its mechanics. Even still, the world is usually not driven by the player; it is the designer’s world, and should be studied as such.”

Holleman also asks, ”…whether or not videogames are similar enough to traditional narratives that we should study them the same way.” In response, he adds,

“To begin, it makes sense to admit that some portions of videogame narratives are exactly like books; the player reads them without interacting except to turn the ‘page’. Some narrative segments in videogames are exactly like movies; the player watches them without doing anything except pausing and unpausing. No decent videogame is entirely like movies or books. A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.”

Interactivity is essential, but is not synonymous with narrative. Ernest Adams, writing in “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers,” said,

“Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power.”

In that same article, Henry Jenkins writes,

“You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity… Most often, when we discuss games as stories, we are referring to games that either enable players to perform or witness narrative events – for example, to grab a lightsabre and dispatch Darth Maul in the case of a Star Wars game. Narrative enters such games on two levels – in terms of broadly defined goals or conflicts and on the level of localized incidents. ”

Immersiveness also depends heavily on how much free will the player has, and the ability to write ourselves into the script. In games like Diablo III, the action is very linear and with little flexibility for explore or act outside the proscribed plot and territory. These games have little immersive value (and, at least with D3, little replay value, either). Others, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, combine limited freedom with scripted activities and plots.

Morrowwind, Skyrim and the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 provide a generally freely roam-able world, and in some cases, the ability to attempt quests well beyond your character’s level (some MMOs offer this, as well).**

While few solo RPG games offer such significant free agency, it is the hallmark of most MMOs. Holleman writes,

“World of Warcraft is another game heavily dependent on the depth and persuasiveness of its world; it has the benefit of being an ever-expanding world as well, with content updates and expansion packs. The first time through the game tends to be the best, from a narrative perspective. The structure of the quests (tasks with completion rewards) that guide gameplay are heavy on exploration, but often a bit short on variety, i.e. collect 10 quest items, for the millionth time. What makes these quests and dungeons compelling—at least the first time through the game—is that they are driven by a strong, interesting setting.”

Because RPGs have a character-building ladder system, the reason many players don’t explore the MMO environments more fully is usually that their characters are graded too low to survive in higher-level zones. Some sort of safe passage is sometimes offered (i.e. roads where hostile NPCs don’t patrol), or sometimes swift transportation is available (riding or flying mounts in WOW) to encourage more exploration.

Most MMOs have graduated zones for each race. These offer playable regions challenging for characters within that given range, such as levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. You play your character in a zone until it levels up to be able to enter (and survive in) the next zone. Each zone has level-related quests to fulfill to aid your advancement.***

Completing all available quests is also part of the achievement ladder. Players are encouraged to complete all quests in all zones, regardless of their level. The problem with this system is that, in many MMOs, when your high-level character enters a low-level zone (for example, for another race), the quests are ridiculously easy but yous till want to complete them. On the other hand, quests are designed to get players to explore the entire zone while questing, which increases the sense of immersion.

Where most games have a defined end (in RPGs, usually the defeat of a final boss character), MMOs are often open-ended: they can be played after the characters have reached their highest level, accomplished all available quests and defeated all the boss characters. Usually such activities are social: group raids, battlegrounds and dungeons outside the formal narrative and questing lines (essentially making them into fantasy variants on the FPS-PvP line of gaming). It’s also possible to create new characters and start again from level one, often choosing a different race, type/class (warrior, priest, hunter, etc.,) or even alliance.

As the goal of game design, immersion is difficult to achieve: it depends on the interaction of several factors, as well as the independent activities of players outside the scripted narrative. It’s an interesting challenge that, so far, no single game has managed to meet fully, but it’s always interesting to examine the results.  ****


* I started wargaming in the mid-1970s, bought a computer in 1977, and by around 1980 was writing a regular column on computer games for Moves magazine, as well as writing articles for contemporary programming magazines. I wrote about computers and game design for several magazines in the 1980s including Antic and ST Log, and published a column on technology in Canadian newspapers for a decade from the mid 1990s, which often looked at game developments.

** First-person shooters (FPS) like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor usually combine scripted scenarios with open or semi-open gameplay in a small environment. Very few have a fully open environment (Far Cry, however was one).

*** Level grinding is when you rush through all the available quests solely to get your characters up to a reasonable level of strength to be able to use powers or traits unlocked at higher levels, and then to engage in multiplayer activities like dungeons and raids. It’s common in WOW to see level 60-80 characters doing level 1-10 quests to complete their achievement ladders. For the lower level players, this can be frustrating as you watch a higher-level character blaze through an area, taking quest items or killing quest characters with ease, forcing you to wait for them to respawn. Guild Wars 2 has a different approach. When the player’s level is higher than the zone, that level is reduced in that zone to make repeat and collective quests competitive. A level 35 character, playing in a 1-5 zone, will play at level 3-5. Weapon and armour strengths are decreased accordingly. This is somewhat offset by the character’s accumulated buffs, unlocked skills and so on, so it is easier but still a challenge. This heightens the immersive value of GW2.

**** One of the things in WOW that, for me, detracts from immersion is the cartoonish style of characters and buildings. Games like Rift and GW2 have tried to make the player feel less distanced through more realistic graphics and animation. However, none of them are up to the detail or lifelike characters we see in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. Some licence must be allowed, of course, for fantasy races and characters.


10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….


The other conspiracy theories….

Red Queen and AliceAfter writing about the nonsensical “chemtrail” conspiracy theory and its tin-foil-hat brigade believers, I amused myself by reading up on some of the other conspiracies-du-jour on the internet. And no, I don’t mean your garden-variety secret-mushroom-farm, PRA dome, lobbyists-and-rec-facilities, aliens-in-disguise-running-the-library, Eddie-Bush-is-falling-down, Scoop-is-working-for-the-town or other local conspiracies. I mean real conspiracies: meaty stuff shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of wingnuts. Maybe millions…

Wikipedia – gotta love that site, even though it may be a conspiracy itself (see below) – has a list of popular conspiracy theories. Now it’s not a full list (there’s not a single mention of a mushroom, but a search for “mushroom conspiracy” on Google produces nearly 3,000 pages, and 1.92 million without the quote marks – but curiously, mushroom conspiracy collingwood produces 2.04 million…), but it has oodles of entertaining conspiracies to pursue.

Anyway, back to Wikipedia:

The list of conspiracy theories is a collection of the most popular unproven theories related but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories are meant to cover up the accusers’ own schemes, such as Holocaust denial.

Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered to be similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany’s pretense for invading Poland in World War II.

Got that? Unproven. Keyword here. Okay. Scroll down the page to “paranormal” (aka wiki-wacky wingnut) conspiracies. Click on “evil aliens.” Opens to a page about “reptilians.” Now if you thought chemtrails made Scientology look smart, the reptilian conspiracy goes well beyond into  the loony tune zone:

According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.[7] He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he frequently gives lectures to crowds of 2,500 or more. American writer Vicki Santillano ranked the notion that “Reptilian humanoids control all of us” as one of the 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

Reptilian HilaryPopular, of course, doesn’t mean smart. Or logical. Or even sane. But David Icke clearly has some brains: he makes money off this silliness. He sells his ideas, including through a premium membership on his website. Non-subscribers have to put up with the annoying Google ads and invitations to join to get to only a portion of the tin-foil-hat stuff. Icke’s stuff is a treasure trove of nuttiness that encompasses a wide range of weirdness. Be prepared to spend at least an hour reading his stuff and giggling aloud at it.

So I can guess Icke’s reasons for promoting this silliness (money is a powerful motivator). But what motivates the people who follow him or who have spun off their own theories from his? What motivates the self-described “Nibiruan Council“?

Welcome to the official site of the Nibiruan Council, a multidimensional off-world council whose members are connected to the people of the planet Nibiru and the Nibiruans’ ancient ancestors, the 9D Nibiruans.

The Nibiruans’ mission is to prepare humanity to take their rightful place in the greater galactic community. The Nibiruans are especially interested in assisting starseeds and walk-ins. Multidimensional ascension tools along with an accelerated program for DNA recoding will prepare them to be the teachers and wayshowers needed today. Jelaila Starr is the Nibiruan Councils’ messenger and channel. Through her articles, workshops, and lectures, the Nibiruan Council’s message has touched the hearts of many people around the world inspiring hope and understanding.

Or the Alien Nation?

The reptilian and other entities, which are manipulating our world by possessing “human” bodies, operate in frequencies between the Third and Fourth densities. These are referred to as “hidden spaces and planes unknown to man”, in the apparently ancient Emerald Tablets, which I quote from in “Children of the Matrix”. For simplicity, I refer to this “between world” in my books as the lower fourth dimension.

It is from here that they police our vibrational prison – the Matrix – and seek to addict and restrict us to the dense physical senses. This world was once far less dense than it is today and the “fall” down the frequencies, caused by the manipulation of incarnate consciousness and DNA infiltration, has made it so much more difficult to maintain a multi-dimensional connection while in physical form. We are now in a cycle of change when the vibration of this “world” will be raised out of dense physicality and return to where it once was. In doing so, the reptilians’ ability to manipulate our physical form will be removed and this is why they are in such a panic at this time to prevent this shift from opening the vibrational prison door.

The reptilians and other manipulating entities exist only just outside the frequency range of our physical senses. Their own physical form has broken down and they can no longer re-produce. Thus they have sought to infiltrate human form and so use that to exist and control in this dimension. They chose the Earth for this infiltration because it most resembles in vibration the locations from which they originate. These reptilians are addicted to the dense physical “world” and the sensations it offers and they have no desire to advance higher. Their aim in this period is to stop the Earth and incarnate humanity from making the shift from dense physical prison into multi-dimensional paradise.

A conspiracy theory explains an event as … an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public. Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new by a long shot. They’re as old as humankind. I’m sure there were residents of Nineveh, 2,600 years ago, meeting in dark storerooms to mutter “Ashurbanipal is a secret agent for the Egyptians.” But in the age of mass media, these conspiracies gained a lot more traction than they ever had because they could be shared among millions with ease. And they have become a lot stranger and less believable than ever. But that doesn’t seem to deter the True Believers.

Rational Wiki has a longer list of conspiracy theories, but even it can’t cover the sheer number of conspiracies that have erupted online over the last two decades (although you have to read about the conspiracy that a Yiddish secret society is using Wikipedia to dominate the world!).

There must be a thousand different paranoid right-wing conspiracies about President Obama’s health care plan alone. Hell, Obama himself has generated a gazillion truly astounding conspiracy theories, including that he visited Mars as a teenager (really…)

List25 has a list of (you guessed it) the “top 25″ conspiracy theories. Frankly it’s a bit thin, and lacks any links or proper explanations. But it does include the “phantom time” conspiracy, which is so entertaining you should look it up. This conspiracy says 297 years of history between 614 and 911 CE (the early Middle Ages) never happened. Instead, these dates were added to the calendar by historian conspirators who faked all the artifacts. ‘Nuff said. have fun: it’s on par with UFOs and Bosnian pyramids.  Spoiler: Skeptoid debunks it.

After the shooting of children in Sandy Hook, “truthers” (a pejorative for conspiracy theorists who call their wacky ideas “truth”) developed a raft of conspiracies around the tragedy that ranged from there-was-no-shooting to the-government-killed-the-children-to-take-away-your-guns. More than 40 YouTube videos claiming to expose the “”Sandy Hook hoax” had more than 100,000 views. YouTube is a godsend* for “truthers” (and self-alleged “psychics” who share the same level of truthiness…)

Time Magazine has a list of ten of the top conspiracy theories, most of which are pre-internet doozies most of us know and have waded into:

  • The JFK Assassination
  • 9/11 Cover-Up
  • Area 51 and the Aliens
  • Paul Is Dead
  • Secret Societies Control the World
  • The Moon Landings Were Faked
  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • Holocaust Revisionism
  • The CIA and AIDS
  • The Reptilian Elite

The internet has allowed every fruit loop to publish online and garner an audience of starry-eyed idiots. Who needs critical thinking when you have the internet?

Since the vaccination conspiracy doesn’t show on the Wikipedia list, I did some searching and was able to pull up hundreds of wingnut pages in which vaccinations are blamed for all sorts of improbable acts and evils, usually perpetuated by the anonymous, secretive but authoritarian “government.” For example, this site warns (comically but very sincerely):

…the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices… As new technology has developed over the years, the need to vaccinate each and every one of us has become more creative, particularly with older citizens. Enter the Flu Vaccination. The flu vaccination has provided a perfect way for the government to implant updated beacon devices, particularly for those individuals who recieved vaccinations fourty or more years ago, whose beacons may not have had the benefit of various technological advances. These vaccinations are also used for experimental weapon purposes as well. The government not only implants various forms of biological and chemical warfare within the citzenry for experimental purposes, but also for mind control techniques, such as implanting specific types of criminal or anti-social behavior — also for warfare experimental purposes. In conclusion, the vaccination process has provided the government with a convenient way not only to plant beacon devices within the entire citizenry, but also to test experimental warfare and mind-control techniques.

I know, I know. It’s hard not to guffaw. But vaccination theories are dangerous, not just foolish: they are killing people gullible enough to believe that it’s safer not to vaccinate your kids or yourself. Despite hundreds of children’s deaths from measles in Pakistan (there were 306 deaths from measles in 2012 alone), one woman has written a book encouraging children to delight in the joys of this and other potentially lethal childhood diseases.

What will she write about next? The fun of polio? Happy meningitis? The delights of diabetes? This anti-vaccination stuff is seriously DANGEROUS.

If you want to read how insidious this particular stupidity is, just spend a few minutes on Google. Look at the list of madness a search for “vaccination conspiracy” produces. One site associates vaccinations with fracking, cannibalism, GMO foods, government education, nuclear power, fluoride and cancer. All at once. This is really scary, not fun. It’s worrisome that these people can not only vote, but can own guns and are not locked away in institutions.

And that’s just part of the problem. People who willingly delude themselves about one bit of bizarre pseudoscience like chemtrails or homeopathy** will usually swallow the rest of the conspiracy Kool-Aid and accept pretty much all of these wacky ideas wholesale, just abandoning all common sense and critical thinking. It’s a stunningly short jump from believing governments are vaccinating everyone through airplane exhaust at 25,000 feet to believing reptiloid aliens are masquerading as humans and running governments.

For example, the author quoted above isn’t done with vaccinations. He links these vaccine-inserted nano-beacons with highway building projects, information technology, West Nile virus, supercomputers and the CIA:

Indeed, although states are replacing water pipes, they are also, unknowingly, installing millions of miles of fiber optics and other receptor cells. As discussed earlier, these wires are used to monitor everything, sometimes as a backup to satellite system monitoring or to more specific monitoring strategies to fill any gaps of satellite technology…
The West Nile Virus, or other types of viruses with different names, will likely “spread” to other parts of the country. This will prompt public outcry — which is manipulated by the media — for more sprayings…
The partnership between this unnamed drug corporation and the United States Military continues.
In the late 1940′s, the government created a supercomputer, known as Ergo9. Ergo9 was used, in conjunction with various satellites, to spy on the Russians….

Uh, I hate to break your bubble, Mr. Fruity Loop, but the first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched in October 1957. The USA didn’t launch its own satellite – Explorer 1 – until 1958. The first reconnaissance satellite was not launched until 1962, (GRAB).

This site also seems to be the source for the Ergo9 reference, which gets repeated on a few other paranoid conspiracy-theory sites, but hasn’t grown legs. Yet. These things require time to gestate into full-blown ludicrosity – even though Ergo9 is almost as daft as the local “Rick-owns-your-mortgage-and-your-car,” “Elvis-is-still-alive” or “pro-wrestling-is-real” conspiracies. Spoiler alert: supercomputers weren’t invented until the 1960s when Seymour Cray designed the first one. The small-building-size Eniac computer of 1946 was hardly a “supercomputer.”

Most of the conspiracy theory sites are a mashup of the bizarre, the curious, the angry, the paranoid, the gullible, historically and factually incorrect, and the stupid.They’re often based on either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of facts. Particularly the angry. The amount of vituperation is incredible. People writing about these conspiracies get angry and then angrier as they cobble their theories together.

And it’s not just the Tea Party supporters who walk the conspiracy trail into the deep woods of angry paranoia (although illiterate, right-wing Christian fundamentalists seem particularly prone to them – just Google the Westboro Baptist Church wackos). It almost seems infectious. Once you believe in one impossible thing, you start to believe in them all, from mushroom-farm conspiracies to vaccinations-implant-homing-beacons-for-the-government to reptilians-are-masquerading-as-municipal-councillors…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland.

Although these crazy conspiracies give the rest of us a fair bit of entertainment, we can’t ignore them just because they are ridiculous: some of these crazy, deluded people are in government (or plan to be). Some of them are already among policy makers and bureaucrats (for example there are creationists in government, even holding on the US Congress Science Committee!). Can you imagine people who believe in vaccine conspiracies getting appointed to a ministry of health? Or someone who believes in chemtrails getting onto a national research council board?

It could happen. That’s just one reason we have to push more rationality, critical thinking and plain common sense online. Let’s keep debunking and ridiculing this stuff so that it doesn’t get any further grip on the gullible among us.


* What would an atheist say instead of “godsend”? Are there any good but secular synonyms that carry the same sense? Imaginary-deity-send doesn’t quite cut it. Words like blessing, miracle and, manna carry a religious sense, too. Calling something a stroke of luck or windfall suggests it was mere coincidence, which godsend does not mean. Have to think about that… Apple lovers probably use Jobs-send…
** This is also true of those who believe in so-called psychics, palm readers, astrologers or faith healers. Once you believe in the paranormal, you’re doomed to misunderstand and mis-appreciate science. You’ll start believing in creationism and all sorts of codswallop, like phrenology, homeopathy, numerology and other crackpot ideas.


The chemtrail conspiracy nonsense

Chemtrail conspiraciesScientists need not apply for membership in the Chemtrail Conspiracy. In fact, scientists will probably be booted out for even walking on the same street where the meeting is being held. That’s because scientists would shine a light into the utter darkness of this nutty conspiracy. According to Wikipedia:

The chemtrail conspiracy theory holds that some trails left by aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for purposes undisclosed to the general public in clandestine programs directed by various government officials.[1] This theory is not accepted by the scientific community, which states that they are just normal contrails, as there is no scientific evidence supporting the chemtrail theory.

Okay, so does it make sense to you that millions of people are involved in some bizarre worldwide conspiracy that involves every level of government, the military, the medical community, meteorologists, scientists AND private industry in numerous countries simultaneously, and not ONE has ever become a whistle blower? Not ONE has ever gone public with PROOF?

As Skeptoid notes,

Like all conspiracy theories, chemtrails require us to accept the existence of a coverup of mammoth proportions. In this case, virtually every aircraft maintenance worker at every airport in the world needs to be either part of the conspiracy, or living under a threat from Men in Black, with not a single whistle blower or deathbed confession in decades. Or that for all the thousands of traditional media outlets around the world that have the resources and willingness to do solid investigative journalism, not a single one has dredged up as much as a single provable fact that this isn’t just a self-inflicted mass delusion?

Come on – this chemtrail stuff is so wacky it makes creationism and Scientology look smart. But hey, silliness was never a barrier to joining the tin foil hat brigade:

Due to the popularity of the conspiracy theory, official agencies have received thousands of complaints from people who have demanded an explanation. The existence of chemtrails has been repeatedly denied by scientists around the world, who say the trails are normal contrails. The United States Air Force states that the theory is a hoax which “has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications.” The United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that chemtrails are not scientifically recognized phenomena.

In case you wonder where all those folks who believed in the Mayan apocalypse have gone, look no further. They’re filling the internet with more pseudoscientific-conspiracy drivel about how the government is trying to sterilize you, pacify you, experiment on you, make you sick, control the weather, vaccinate you, infect us with nanobot implants, fight global warming, cause global warming, geo-engineering, or make us mindless slaves to the New World Order – or maybe a combination of them, since no two conspiracy theorists seem to agree on WHY anyone would do this (let alone how).

But the wingnuts are True Believers even if what they believe in is clearly outside the realm of common sense:

So here we are in 2012 and the level of verifiable evidence of Chem Trails and their effect on humanity is staggering, and as more of us become more sophisticated , more awake , more expanded in our ability to see the larger picture , we are starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together as to “Why” they are doing this.

The reason of course is money , profits, and control , so nothing new here, just more sophisticated control mechanisms to manipulate markets, food sources and ultimately the ability to produce food. It turns out that the main reason for the development of weather modification , Chem Trails, HAARP , is to create a situation that puts normal crops at a sever disadvantage through droughts and other extreme weather.

Every expert in aviation and, weather must be in on the cabal, because they only make statements about how ludicrous the theory is:

Experts on atmospheric phenomena deny the existence of chemtrails, asserting that the characteristics attributed to them are simply features of contrails responding differently in diverse conditions in terms of the sunlight, temperature, horizontal and vertical wind shear, and humidity levels present at the aircraft’s altitude. Experts explain that what appears as patterns such as grids formed by contrails result from increased air traffic traveling through the gridlike United States National Airspace System’s north-south and east-west oriented flight lanes, and that it is difficult for observers to judge the differences in altitudes between these contrails from the ground. The jointly published fact sheet produced by NASA, the EPA, the FAA, and NOAA in 2000 in response to alarms over chemtrails details the science of contrail formation, and outlines both the known and potential impacts contrails have on temperature and climate. The USAF produced a fact sheet as well that described these contrail phenomena as observed and analyzed since at least 1953. It also rebutted chemtrail theories more directly by identifying the theories as a hoax and denying the existence of chemtrails.

I suppose people who can readily believe that crop circles are alien messages, aliens crashed at Roswell, or that flu vaccines cause autism, can believe in chemtrails. Once you start drinking the pseudoscience Kool-Aid, it’s hard not to drain the glass and ask for more.

Here’s a quote from one of those crazy Kool-Aid drinker sites:

So, what is the REAL reason for the spraying?

There are 3 reasons:

1) To change the electrical conductivity of our atmosphere so that scaler weapons such as HAARP in Alaska will work. These microwave weapons can be used in conjunction with chemtrails to control the weather, also to trigger off earthquakes and tsunamis.

2) For population control to cull the human herd: weather control = crop control= people control via contrived food shortages such as the huge drought currently driving small farmers out of business in the midwest.

3) Monsanto has a hand in the chemtrails conspiracy, as they have a patent on a genetically engineered seed that will germinate despite the changes in Ph from all the aluminum oxide being sprayed on us, while heirloom seeds are increasingly not germinating.

Agenda 21 is Behind the Chemtrails Conspiracy

This is by design. The 10,000 pound gorilla in the room driving all this genocide is UN Agenda 21, a 40 chapter blueprint for population control which I have read in its entirety. The UN officially considers farming and ranching to be “unsustainable” so I would like to see Weston A. Price Foundation join forces with the bipartisan coalition against UN Agenda 21 that has sprung up nationwide.

Ah ha! So it’s the UN behind it all, out to destroy good ol’ capitalist Mega-Farming (as opposed to good ol’ capitalist Mega-Pharm, which some say is also behind the conspiracy). I’ll bet the UN paid the aliens to make the crop circles, too, and drive the investigators wild!

The Skeptoid notes,

Wow. Where to begin. I read a fair amount of skeptical, paranormal, and conspiracy web sites, but I don’t recall ever reading so much vituperation, anger, and name calling as when I read a few forums discussing chemtrails. If you’re not familiar with the term, chemtrails are what some conspiracy theorists call aircraft condensation trails. Most of them don’t believe that conventional contrails exist, and that when you see one, you’re actually seeing a trail of mysterious airborne chemicals sprayed from the aircraft. Those who do concede the existence of contrails often claim subtle differences in appearance or behavior between a condensation trail and a chemical trail.

Chemtrail theorists, of course, have their own “experts” who contradict their opponents’ claims to debunk the chemtrail nonsense. Of course the chemtrail “experts” are not disadvantaged like their opponents, by having university degrees, years of experience, tons of reliable testing equipment or by not being on any meds or recreational drugs. Mostly they’re people who spend the majority of their time online reading other conspiracy sites and then linking up to form a collective of incredible gullibility.

Dave Thomas –  a physicist and mathematician, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (a lethal combination for an Illuminati shill if ever I saw one) - wrote in a piece about this nuttiness:

Kennedy assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theorists are mere pikers compared to “chemtrail” buffs. You will rarely find a more virulently self-deluded group, anywhere.

The Skeptic Project notes the conspiracy association between alleged chemtrails and the bizarre, but equally delusional morgellon’s disease:

Conspiracy theorists are avid anomaly hunters. Whenever they find something they immediately fail to understand, they try and weasle any correlation they can to fit their beliefs. … to the conspiracy theorist, anything other than what the government tells them will have to do. … The reasoning goes like this. Chemtrails are being sprayed everywhere, morgellon’s disease is still a mystery, therefore chemtrails cause morgellon’s disease… Conspiracy theorists have a long laundry list of secret tactics that Big Pharma and the government utilize to reduce the population. And this list gets so long and ridiculous. Vaccines, AIDs, chemtrails, fluoride, food additives etc. … conspiracy theorists continually ignore and deny any historical or scientific facts that don’t fit in their worldview. Denialism at its finest.

The Rational Wiki is equally snarky about these conspiracy theorists:

Chemtrails are an alleged conspiracy by which cranks claim that aircraft contrails are a form of chemical dispersal through which the government is attempting to poison people from above. This is a relatively recent conspiracy theory, having been first discussed around 1996, and is still going strong despite the evidence for the conspiracy being laughably lacking.

The Rational Wiki goes on to describe some of the homemade remedies these wackos have dreamed up to combat their imaginary chemtrails:

There are an intrepid group of people who have discovered the secret to removing chemtrails: vinegar. There are numerous groups dedicated to it, and despite the obvious stupidity of it all, they seem to believe it. The trick is as follows; simply evaporate a certain amount of vinegar each day in order to disperse clouds and chemtrails and to clear the skies. Depending on how crazy the person proposing this can be, the volumes range from a few litres per day (mixed with extra water) to simply spraying it into the air from a bottle. Yes, that’s right, people believe that clouds and chemicals at 20,000 ft can be dispersed and neutralised by spraying a couple of millilitres of dilute acetic acid in their back yard – presumably the patches of dead grass you can see in the videos these people produce are just a coincidence. For those who can’t quite afford the increase in energy bills associated with boiling 5+ litres of water a day for no reason, other advice includes simply tipping it onto asphalt to let it evaporate naturally. Complaints from neighbours about the smell aren’t usually mentioned.

Vinegar? This site recommends sulfur as a “detox strategy.” Nah – wear magnets and rub yourself with magic crystals. Works just as well.

The nutbars who believe in chemtrails have, on the other hand, done us considerable good by spawning numerous sites, wikis and blogs dedicated to science, reason and critical thinking to contradict this nonsense. We can always use more sites dedicated to logic, science and reason, even if the nutbars never read them.

The Contrail Science Blog is one such scientific site, and offers a good lesson on contrails throughout history, opening with this:

The chemtrail conspiracy theory seems to frequently misidentify ordinary contrails as “chemtrails” – some kind of secret spraying program. This theory comes in many flavors, and there’s a large number of things people bring up as “evidence” to support this theory. I’ve tried to gather all the debunks of this evidence in one place here, for easy reference. This is a work in progress, and will remain on the front page here as I expand and refine it. While the title of this post is “How to Debunk Chemtrails”, the actual debunking depends on what version of the theory needs debunking. There’s a variety of common claims, and variations on those themes. The best approach is to debunk the individual claim (such as: contrails only last a few seconds), rather than trying to debunk the entire theory.

The author clearly and eloquently explains that contrails are condensation, but not like your breath:

Condensation trails from a jet can last for many minutes, even for hours sometimes. So why is there this difference? Why do jet contrails sometime persist, but your breath condensation quickly evaporates? The difference is because a contrail freezes. It’s really that simple. Contrails form at -40 degrees Fahrenheit (which is also -40 Celsius), or colder. At that temperature the tiny drops of condensed water will instantly freeze. Once frozen they can not evaporate. They also can’t melt, as it’s -40. They can however fade away through a process known as “sublimation” – where a solid turns into a gas.

Why anyone thinks releasing anything at 25,000 or more feet would be effective is never answers. Ben Radford, of Skeptical Inquiry notes,

There’s also the question of what possible purpose the contrails (er, chemtrails) would serve. As Bob Carroll notes in The Skeptics Dictionary, “Any biological or chemical agents released at 25,000 feet or above would be absolutely impossible to control, making any measurement of effects on the ground nearly impossible. . . . Such an exercise would be pointless, unless you just wanted to pollute the atmosphere. And where is the evidence of the illnesses being caused by these agents?”

Alas, conspiracy buffs have no answers for these fundamental questions. It’s easier (and much more fun) to just sit back and wonder what secret government experiments we are being exposed to that “they” aren’t telling us about.

Of course, governments are denying that they are doing anything nefarious. One pro-conspiracy site (and not just chemtrails, but a whole bevy of them) loudly proclaimed, “UK Denies Evidence Of Widespread Illegal Chemtrail Aerosol Operations.” The story opens (and this really will make you chuckle):

Following the submission of a report, backed by over 20 signatories from diverse backgrounds, detailing widespread illegal and unacknowledged aerosol spraying from aircraft, UK agencies have ignored or denied the significant data it presented. Copies of the report were sent to UK Greenpeace, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), The Royal Air Force, DEFRA and, sometime after, to the UK World-Wide Fund for Nature, challenging them to investigate the data themselves. Four responses were received and all of them have denied the basic science presented in the report, which was backed up by the clear evidence.

Duh – of course they will deny doing something that NO ONE is doing. And funnily enough, reputable organizations backed by REAL science all call the “basic science” of the claims are mere balderdash. But nonetheless, the report adds with refreshing lack of logic:

It is therefore clear that a wide range of people are aware that the spraying is going on, and basic science proves it is really happening. The question has to be asked, then, how do we proceed and obtain answers to has authorised this spraying and what is its purpose? …The research of many people and the report I compiled proves the issue is real, even though we don’t know who is responsible for the spraying.

We don’t know who isn’t doing this, but they must be doing it because they claim not to be. Gotta love that thinking. Or not thinking. The article concludes by calling for

Anyone who has an interest in protecting our environment should be looking at this issue and asking questions. The official responses I have received so far have done nothing, realistically, to refute or correct any of the data or overall conclusions I included, disturbing though they are.

The official responses could never convince anyone who enters with the mindset that the officials must be lying and covering up. And the conclusions are, well, yes, disturbing – but only in your own rather delusional mind. Why would anyone interested in protecting the environment want to expend energy protecting it from imaginary threats? There are enough real threats to it without worrying about these hoaxes and hobgoblins.

In response, the armies of conspiracy wingnuts have assembled a barrage of doctored images and videos, fake “experts” who can barely string together noun and verb into a sentence, and ominous musical overdubs, doctored photographs, fake “experts” and egregiously stupid pseudoscience to present a chilling image of ongoing government-sponsored terror that features nanobots, secret government agencies, massive collusion by millions of people worldwide, the New World Order. Gosh, no wonder the Mayan apocalypse was sloughed aside for this stuff.

So debunking this nonsense it isn’t exactly a debate… more like a carnival game. Whack-a-mole comes to mind. Sigh. Some days I am convinced the internet is just making us collectively more stupid. Other days that’s the good news…


More Machiavellian Misquotes

Face palmMachiavelli today is known to many by sayings that aren’t actually his; pseudo-quotations or mis-attributed sayings that appear on slovenly, un-moderated, un-verified websites that do an enormous disservice to everyone by their very existence.

These sites seem to feed one another, because find one misquote on one of them and you’re sure to find it parroted without even the slightest effort to verify it, on all the rest. Since these sites are predominantly about ad revenue, it’;s little wonder they are so poor.

Most people are unable to discern the wheat from the chaff ion these sites in great part because few can actually lay claim to actually having read him (The Prince, let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say (and the same goes to every other author and philosopher so frequently misquoted on these sites).

Machiavelli did not write, for example, ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and a considerable simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.

Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

These so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors.

Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state. That has been boiled down, in modern times, into “the end justifies the means.” But this shorthand removes it from the all-important context that makes sense of his words (taking things out of context and using them for your own, bizarre ends is quite common on the internet).

Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That may be paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It is more likely to derive from an entirely different source: The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. This misquote is popular on those faux-quote sites, but it isn’t one of his maxims. I wrote about that mis-quote last year. It still irks me to see it online today.

In the comment following that previous post, I wrote about another popular – and very wrong – internet meme attributed to Machiavelli: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

That line was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:

Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include the following pseudo-quotes taken from various, inaccurate, un-moderated and never verified, quotation sites online. I spent a couple of hours yesterday poring over my texts to search for them, just to be sure. It’s tricky because there are so many translations available, but anyone who has actually read any of them will recognize fairly easily what is and is not his style:

  • “Politics have no relation to morals.”
  • “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
  • “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
  • “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
  • “Before all else, be armed.”
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
  • “History is written by the victors.”
  • “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
  • “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
  • “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
  • “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
  • “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
  • “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Got that? Machiavelli NEVER SAID any of those things, yet all appear on many online quotation database pages. They cause me a face-palm moment to even read them (more on my Machiavelli book site and learn what he really said: ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/addenda/appendix-b-machiavellian-misquotes/)

Unfortunately, there are many who will get fooled into thinking these are real quotations from Machiavelli and other authors. But these so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors; enough that even a casual read should give anyone pause to doubt the veracity. These sites are as reliable to literature as creationism is to science, without being as funny.

These egregious errors exacerbate the bad education people get from the internet; they also speak volumes to the increasing gullibility of web users who will accept clearly mis-attributed lines with the same ease they will believe magnets cure arthritis, crystals are magi, flu vaccinations cause autism and other quackery.


Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?

Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.


* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.