Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Carneys vs. Chaos

As noted by PiecesOfFlair, Brian Carney of the Wall Street Journal (a newspaper that did a marvelous job of gloating over Spitzer in the top editorial yesterday) wrote a great remembrance of Gary Gygax, creator of the game Dungeons & Dragons. Carney is the brother of John, Tim, and Mike, the first two of whom have been debaters at Lolita Bar.

What Brian didn’t mention in his Gygax piece is that Dungeons & Dragons — like the Carney brothers themselves — may have something profound to teach us about the flexibility we have about how to carve up the universe’s basic moral/political polarities.

For you see, the human brain likes simple dichotomies — food/poison, good/bad, safe/dangerous, friend/foe, relative/stranger, potential mate/ugloid — and even grows cranky when faced with things that complicate those simple dichotomies. And people really freak out when faced with the suggestion that some whole system of opposites — such as the political right and left — should be thrown out in favor of a different way of carving up the universe. In Dungeons & Dragons, largely to prevent any of the players from feeling bad, the usual good/evil dichotomy was often thrown out in favor of having the characters/players be adherents of Order and Chaos, which each have their uses (as Sheridan’s climactic speech at the end of the Shadows/Vorlons War on Babylon 5 teaches us, but we don’t have time to get into all that now).

If the fusionist project of which William F. Buckley was such a pivotal figure is to continue and even achieve greater, more profound success, I think it will require similarly creative thinking about how to carve up the political spectrum, if we even keep referring to a “spectrum” — libertarians have often pushed the idea of replacing the linear political spectrum model with a four-pointed political diamond, adding a perpendicular authoritarian/libertarian axis (and libertarian Virginia Postrel did a marvelous job ten years ago of single-handedly reformulating the divide as dynamism/stasis in her Hayekian/Popperian book The Future and Its Enemies, which might well have become the model for the future of politics if not for the immense distraction of 9/11). Similarly, Buckley and other fusionists recognized that there are people who divide the universe up by the market/socialist opposition and others who see it through a tradition/counterculture opposition and that the people who liked markets and the people who like tradition could often be made to work together as a coalition.

But there are still other ways of dividing up the universe, and new possibilities open up with each such recognition (not that I’m saying for a moment such divisions are infinite, arbitrary, or subjective — nothing, strictly speaking, is subjective, but that’s an argument for another time). Take the Carneys themselves — or at least a Platonic ideal of each of three of the Carneys (I haven’t talked to Mike), and if I’m grotesquely oversimplifying both the richness and fundamental underlying unity of their philosophies, please compensate for my error by reading Brian’s newspaper, John’s articles, and Tim’s book and contributions to the Evans and Novak Political Report:

•Brian: de facto neocon (works on editorial board of the Wall Street Journal)

•John: paleocon (even had the guts to argue at Lolita that literacy may be overrated when it was put to him that we need a modern school system, which is the kind of bullet-biting we admire at Lolita)

•Tim: libertarian (his The Big Ripoff, like his mentor Novak, is profoundly pessimistic about the likelihood of any government-business interaction being beneficial)

And I don’t doubt that all three of them would sound very similar, even interchangeable, if put in the right setting with the right “opposition” — but different times and political contexts call for emphasizing different polarities. To some, the hawk/dove opposition seems so fundamental that it’s hard to imagine that anything else could ever matter or ever has — and if they’re young or ignorant enough, they may even have forgotten about the wars started by Democrats such as Bill Clinton. To many of my friends prior to 9/11, it was hard to imagine anything mattering more than the government/market dichotomy, yet some now find themselves focused on the hawk/dove dichotomy as well and coming down on opposite sides (though this article is a pretty good reminder that libertarians who pretend the hawk/dove dichotomy is everything ignore other subtle but important differences between Demcrats and Republicans at their peril).

It’s been noted that the excitement-generating candidates this year have tended to be ones who at least pretend to offer some way out of the exhausting right-left divide — at least pretending to offer purple, vertical, maverick, triangulatory, or paleolibertarian escape routes of some sort (and perhaps an explicitly independent route if Bloomberg yet tries to step into a v.p. spot). That’s a healthy sign, and we could go farther. My goal in envisioning a “conservatism for punks,” for instance, is not merely to repackage conservatism (or libertarianism) but — at the risk of sounding far, far more pessimistic — to see what few parts of conservatism can be salvaged from the ruins and carried forward along with the best parts of other dead philosophies. It’s a more Nietzschean project, and a necessary one.

But to get back to the nerd stuff for a moment: If, despite comics creator Stan Lee being in the news again this week as a possible conduit for illicit donations to Hillary Clinton, you don’t think something as geeky as Dungeons & Dragons could possibly have lasting political implications, keep this in mind: Gygax borrowed his Order/Chaos dichotomy from sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock, whose Elric of Melnibone found himself in a world where people’s allegiances shifted between Law and Chaos, but without one side being wholly devoid of heroes. And Moorcock is consciously a left-anarchist. And he got the Law/Chaos dichotomy from more old-school sci-fi writer Poul Anderson who is — yes — a libertarian. And so the wheel of fate comes full circle.

And one man influenced by Moorcock (and his depiction of an eternal “Balance” between Law and Chaos), I must add, is my favorite comics writer, Grant Morrison, who has sometimes played around with the fact that Order/Chaos does not neatly map onto Good/Evil, despite the temptation of lazier comics writers to treat them that way. It is probably no coincidence, then, that one of the most important characters in the impending Morrison comic book miniseries Final Crisis (about which I’ll certainly write more in May when it comes out — this blog is, after all, the highest Google hit for the search: Egg Fu World War III, if you know what I mean) is Libra, a very obscure old Justice League villain who is a living balance — and became one with the universe itself. On a less-lofty note, Morrison promises the miniseries will depict disasters as frightening as a Slayer album cover. Let us hope the same is not true of the future of political discourse!

ADDENDUM: Ah! On another Journal/comics note, DC Comics’ Scott Nybakken informs me that our fellow libertarian comics guy, Paul Pope, was the subject of an interesting article last week in the Journal, one which helps explain why he’s too busy to respond to phonecalls or e-mails from me these days: he’s designing clothing for DKNY and giving advice to people like Lucasfilm now instead of just drawing comics about teenage girls with robot butlers, not that the latter is a bad start. With the help of his dark, slouchy-looking fashions, we can all look like Pope’s characters, who in turn (as is very often the case with cartoonists) look a lot like him, or as Scott once put it: cartoonists often look oddly as if they drew themselves (Brian Floca, Keith Giffen, Jack Kirby…).


Brian said...

Timmy, libertarian? Ha.

Todd Seavey said...

I hereby declare that the briefest retort that I have ever taken as authoritative.

And if he’s not libertarian, I will simply add that I hope he sticks to econ topics, where he seems to have a good handle on government perfidy (again, I realize you guys end up emphasizing different issues in different settings).

I will also take this opportunity to out Tim as the Phillips Fellow I mentioned last month who fears my godlessness may lead to me going insane eventually, which I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning. I will not go insane. It is all of you who are mad — you, you and your whole society!! But you’ll pay, pay I tell you!!!

Matt said...

I was a bit surprised by Tim’s classification, too. This is a guy that worships Pat Buchanan, after all.

Matt said...

Is there any chance that Carneys vs. Chaos will be adapted into comic book form?