Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bad for Business

Anyone reading this blog should know that I am not optimistic. I feel now and then that I ought to write something encouraging, something that extolls the great strides the game has taken these last four decades, or that I should somehow celebrate all the work and effort of thousands of self-motivated gamers as they strive to produce their campaigns, gathering together in the warm glow of the dining room ceiling lamp to challenge their imaginations, their hopes and dreams.

But I'm reminded of this drunken exchange from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington:

Clarissa: Maybe we could clear out of this town, get to feel like people. Live like we just got out of a tunnel.

Diz: Tunnel?

Clarissa: A tunnel. You've never seen prairie grass with the wind leaning on it, have you Diz?

Diz: Does the wind get tired out there?

Clarissa: Or angry little mountain streams, or ... or the sun moving against the cattle. You've never seen
anything like that, have you Diz?

Diz: Have you?

Clarissa: No.

Diz: (hesitating) Do we have to?

Clarissa: (disgusted) No, I can't think of anything more sappy.

I guess people need to hear that kind of crap said out loud now and then. Truth be told, I'm as moved by angry mountain streams and the wind on prairie grass as much as the next guy. And I love this game I talk about; that should be bleeding obvious too, I spend so much gawddamn time working on it and writing about it. But somehow, whenever I hear someone preaching the glories of the game and the glories of its participants, I get to looking for exits. I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, the dirty, filthy shoe sitting in the pot that someone's about to serve me for dinner. This isn't cynicism. This is experience.

I've been a sourpuss of late, no question. But if we're going to look at the state of the hobby, it's an ignorant argument of convenience to look at the future, and claim that its going to be something wonderful. We don't know what the future is going to be. The present, on the other hand, is a sewer. It is a fecal drainpipe of repetition and recursiveness, fetishism, bickering and dissension. We're not even arguing over the actual game any more. We've reduced ourselves to the point where we're arguing over how to describe the arguments over the game. We've been factionalized, deadlocked, nitpicked and lethargic for at least a decade. What has the Internet wrought for the game?

Not a fucking thing.

If there's been a glint of hope in all this torpidity, it has come from individuals who have made the effort to change their minds. I've had to change my mind about my style of play to make my online game more accessible for players who can't see me. I've had to change my mind about presentation, and just HOW MUCH work I need to do in order to communicate ideas. I work far harder on clarity than I used to ... where once I would write a few words to cover rules, I find myself now writing pages and pages in order to make clear what I mean.

But there's a bigger change I want to make; and it has much to do with 17th century Holland.

It is difficult to convey the degree of dissention in Europe during the 16th century. Religion had been the property of one entity for so many centuries, when the rise of Protestantism occurred, emotions ran high. The word 'protest' is often missed in the word protestant; and protest was not limited to the mild hammering of paper on church doors. Protest was violent, it was constant, it happened in a moment's notice and - most often - it was perpetrated thoughtlessly.

If the gentle reader can, imagine a world way outside the very conception of tolerance. A world where being within five miles of another religious belief is justification for mounting up and slaughtering husband, wife, children, dogs ... and so on. Imagine that you believe this is mandated ... it's not a whim, it's not a fun time on a Friday night, this is serious business and has a great deal to do with your duty, honor, your soul and the souls of your dead father and mother. If the reader can, gather all the emotional feeling you have about your mother right now, and then imagine your mother being stabbed with pitchforks and burned with oil, and her eyes gutted out and her hair set on fire ... and then imagine yourself being capable of thinking the reason for this happening is because of the non-believers that have lately settled in the house down the road.

It's difficult, I know. We view 'intolerance' as a few nasty words spoken thoughtlessly during a political speech about unemployment. There is so little of it in our day-to-day lives that we have to go to the media to find us examples so we can get upset about it. We have nothing in our conciousness that would enable us to comprehend the bloody-minded hatred possessed by an Augsburgian Catholic for a Wittenberger Lutheran.

And still, it took many decades of Protestantism to coalesce into something that could really challenge Catholic authority ... and until it did really challenge Catholic authority, the Catholics were comparably light-handed about the execution of Protestants.

This is the point where someone ought to point out the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. This was a notorious event in 1572, when an overflowing of religious zeal produced a Catholic mob that proceeded to slaughter Protestant Huguenots in the streets of Paris, largely due to the intolerance I've been talking about. The number of Huguenots had been steadily rising, reaching a critical mass ... but that blind violence I've been speaking of hadn't quite manifested. Yet when a group of targeted assassinations by the King initiated a general emotional feeling of hatred, the thing got out of control and something like 5,000 to 30,000 people died.

So this would be the argument someone might make against my statement that the Catholics had been light-handed. I'd like to point out, however, that Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door in 1517. To get a sense of the scale of time here, try to imagine that the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre happened yesterday ... that would mean the theses that started the anti-Catholic protest had been hammered to a door in 1958. Before Kennedy, before Nixon, before most of you were BORN, and in many cases, before your parents were born. That's not a rapid ascendance in violence. Just think of all the mass genocides that have taken place in our culture since 1958 ... Cambodia, Timor and Bosnia all leap immediately to mind, along with Zaire, Darfour and Christ knows how many people died in China during the post-Maoist regieme.

In any case, the Huguenot execution was a small beginning to what was to follow later, when there really were enough Protestants to produce armies of considerable size. Once again, to put it in perspective, if the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre was 9/11, the Thirty Years War was a series of Hiroshimas.

By 1618, following the latter Defenestration of Prague, it was a free-for-all. There were a lot of reasons for war - power politics in Europe being the most significant among the upper classes - but like St. Bartholomew's Day, once the royal agenda was made known, the average individual on the ground went nuts. Off and on for thirty years, whole towns were razed, mass executions seized the victors, Catholics were slaughtered, Protestants were slaughtered ... it was just a long murderous drunken hatred-fueled nightmare that went on unceasing for more than a whole generation of Europeans. If the War were ending today, it would have started just about the time that the movie Return of the Jedi hit the theatres. The first time.

This is from Wikipedia; it's close enough to other accounts I've read in legitimate books:

"So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population in the German states at about 25% to 40%. Some regions were affected much more than others. For example, W├╝rttemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war. In the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas an estimated two-thirds of the population died. The male population of the German states was reduced by almost half. The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the expulsion of Protestant Czechs. Much of the destruction of civilian lives and property was caused by the cruelty and greed of mercenary soldiers. Villages were especially easy prey to the marauding armies. Those that survived, like the small village of Drais near Mainz, would take almost a hundred years to recover. The Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns."

But what does this long and winding post have to do with Holland and the present state of D&D?

In reality, Holland is just one small province amid a number of regions that were jointly described as the 'Netherlands.' Nether is a word we usually associate with 'out there' or 'at the far end,' but in fact the word derives from the Old Saxon nitheraz, which means down, below ... or bottom. And the Netherlands were indeed down below ... comprising both the modern Netherlands and most of Belguim, these were lands at the bottom of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, meaning that a large part of the commerce of central Europe flowed directly into them. To get a sense of this, imagine that you own the only bridge between the entire Northeast Corner of America and everywhere else in the world, and there are no ships. And everyone has to pay YOU a toll if they want to do business.

This particular toll had been in the hands of a few lucky families in Europe, notably Nassau and Hapsburg, and had fallen into the hands of Spain around the time that Martin Luther was doing his thing. Spain was somewhat keen to go on collecting tolls ... but the Netherlands were becoming less and less passive. Protestantism was flourishing, Spain had grown weak in its military dealings with France, and like all really strong countries that don't want to lose what they consider their own, Spain ultimately marched in to teach those rebellious bastards a lesson.

The result of that was an 80-year fist-fight that would eventually fall into the groove of the 30-years-war like the War in China would eventually groove with WWII. For a sense of the war, imagine the Vietnam war began in 1933 and ended yesterday.

80 years has a way of encouraging a sense of both continuity and cohesion among defenders - and in the Bottom Lands' case, this was heightened by the fact that the residents had a whole other enemy that could not be reasoned with, would never make peace, and had a far greater potential for destroying the landscape than the Spanish. This would be the sea. It is still the Low Countries' enemy.

Where one has a country where much of the land is below sea-level, where it has been wrested from the sea like one would seize enemy territory and make it one's own, there is a recognition that when the sea threatens, EVERYTHING else is immediately dropped. Screw the Spanish, screw Protestantism, screw the argument you had with your neighbor, screw scruples where it comes to whose help you'll accept and who you're too proud to ask help from. Get up, get out, get working, save the country.

Holland is a work project that changed the way human beings began to think of one another.

When the Thirty Years War ended, and the Eighty Years War with it, most of Europe was DONE with religious wars. There were flare-ups, but the war had produced a greater identification with one's nation than with one's religion, and Nationalism as an ideology began to replace the driven, irrational behaviour that had marked the century before the Peace of Westphalia with a driven, irrational behavior that would hit its peak three centuries later. In no place was this more evident than in the Netherlands - which had lost its southern half to Spain, while the northern half organized themselves as a set of 'United Provinces.' If this seems coincidental with the idea of a group of united states, don't you believe it. There is no coincidence. Between the U.P.N. and the U.S., the English invited a Dutchman of Orange-Nassau to come be their king, the English fell in love with all things Dutch, and the Dutch had established themselves as the money-masters of the American Colonies. John Adams would say, "The origins of the two Republics are so much alike that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other." This, obviously, is not often quoted when talking about the 'greatest document ever produced in human history,' though a Dutch Constitution had been written a century earlier, and had 120 years of precedent challenges against it that Jefferson would have well known about.

The practice of tolerance possessed the Netherlands, long before it freed itself from Spanish authority. It mattered less to a Hollander that you despised his religion or his heritage than whether or not you intended to buy his fish. The people of the United Provinces developed a live-and-let-live policy to life that they imparted to other peoples, most notably the British for the reasons described above. Moreover, throughout the second half of the 17th century and well into the 18th, Dutch businessmen drove the world's economy. It was clear to the British that there was something to this attitude of tolerance. They themselves had been through a rather bloody religious civil war, from 1640 to 1660, that demonstrated that a Protestant minister could be every bit as much a dick (with a tumbledown son to boot) as a Catholic King. There had been an endless series of civil wars that had possessed England for two centuries - and prior to that endless warring with the French - and this idea of getting rich and having peace at the same time appealed.

But to have it ... and to get rich ... it was necessary to look at another person you hated, and listen to words that made you sick in the throat, and swallow down all that bile. It was necessary to nod and smile and say out loud, "That's very nice. Would you like to buy some fish?" It was necessary to recognize that having an opinion, and killing another person for having an opinion, were two very different things. It meant that it was okay to express yourself, to say what you believed, but taking ACTION intended to suppress opinion was BAD FOR BUSINESS. Best that you just open and close your fists in frustration, before holding out an open hand and accepting their money.

By all means, hate me. By all means, dispise what I have to say. But in the meantime, perhaps there's something in the way of D&D I could tell you about?


lars_alexander said...

Best blog post I read in a long while.

Scarbrow said...

Some chance that you may veer South for a while and sort the American politics? Just a little bit, please.

Best damn political discourse you've ever written, and that's saying something when it's said about you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

American Politics has everything to do with the consolidation of the media, to where it is owned by so few people that politics and the media are permanently in bed with one another. I recommend this three hour documentary: Orwell Rolls Over in His Grave". It is a well-intentioned overall look at the decline of American media journalism and the rise of media politics.

Tim said...

Now if only Geert Wilders - and the huge numbers supporting him - could remember their own Dutch history. Well written, as always.