Saturday, 31 October 2015

Projection Rejection

Millennial-bashing seems to be a sport on social media.

Or as a few point out, every generation gets bashed, and we're just the first to have it happen on social media. Either way, the rhetoric is always the same: that we're lazy, entitled, irresponsible narcissists.

Usually I'd focus just on that last one and link you with this again, because it's one of my favourite articles ever and worth another read. But then I came across this on Frankly Curious.
There's really only one group that worries about Sharia law in the US: fundamentalist Christians.

Not surprisingly, it is a matter of projection. You know how it goes. Ever since Watergate, the Republicans have been obsessed with fake scandals involving Democrats because they just know the Democrats must be up to the same things they are. Or look at organized voter fraud. Every time an actual case comes up, it turns out to be Republicans. This is why Republicans know there is widespread voter fraud: because they're doing it! And when it comes to worries about Sharia law, it comes from the Christian nationalists — because they want nothing so much as to force Biblical law onto our nation.
That made me wonder, what if Millennial-bashing is a matter of projection too? Those four major themes – laziness, entitlement, irresponsibility and narcissism – don't they all apply equally to the Baby Boomer generation? These guys were molly-coddled by their parents before it was legal to coddle with Molly; the only reason we didn't call them helicopter parents was because helicopters had only just been invented; to a generation that had spent their childhood in the Depression and their adulthood amidst the carnage of WWII, these kids must've seemed the duck's guts.
You didn't suffer during the war, because you weren't born yet. Instead, you enjoy all the benefits of the war being over – a nice home, good schools, and so forth. But most important, your parents treasure you. They had waited until after the war to have you, and they want you to be the happiest child in the world. They shower you with attention, and they satisfy your every whim. You get used to getting your way. – Basics of Generational Dynamics
The only problem is they've carried that attitude all the way through their lives; they were the only generation that never grew out of it. And they really don't like anyone spoiling their rosy opinion of themselves. So could it be when they call us lazy they're trying to justify holding 58% of the wealth and shutting us out of the housing market? That when Joe Hockey cut back on the Dole and said, "The age of entitlement is over," it was the dying embers of a moral conscience trying to square with sponging $365,868* p.a. in government money? That when they call us irresponsible, they're hoping we don't ask why they've wrecked the environment and made sure they're the last generation to collect a pension? That when they call us narcissistic, they're trying to put aside that last botox injection?

As the noted sage Bernard Black said: "I've never seen such projecting. It's in CinemaScope with Dolby surround!" Bernard is my personal patron saint, if you wanted to know; I can tell you exactly who should be patron saint of the Boomers.

* That was just his parliamentary salary, that's to say, that's just what you, personally, were paying him; that was supplemented by his lucrative property investments and, presumably, whatever bribes the just-about-to-panic coal industry sent his way**. I'm sure he'd tell me he earned every cent of it, and who am I to disagree? A man who can bend spacetime far enough to apparently work 300 hours a week*** is clearly a genius who deserves everything he gets.

** Now he's ambassador to the U.S., that figure's gone up to $450,000, or just 150,000 middies.
*** Calculated using my hourly wage as a rough guide. If you really want to see what I'm taking home, go ahead.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

11 Stories

My second character in Oblivion was a Breton named Selene.

Spoiler warning. If you want to remain ignorant of Elder Scrolls plot twists... for some reason... don't read on.

My first character was fun, but because I went wherever and did whatever seemed good at the time, she ran out of skills before maxing out her attributes which left me kinda frustrated. But then I installed the Vile Lair plug-in and found the book Manifesto Cyrodiil Vampyrum, and then I had an answer. It didn't seem very realistic that one person could end up head of every major guild in Cyrodiil; after the first one it didn't feel like playing a character anymore, it felt like filling out a test sheet before you hand it in. But the manifesto held the answer, calling all vampires to "devote your pursuits to the procurement of influence, political and otherwise." That's what kind of character could "realistically" become head of all guilds: a vampire.

And so Selene was born. I deliberately made her a Breton because they were game-breakers back then, I set out to craft the ultimate character. And with care, patience and a little help from UESP, I did it. It's not easy to isolate individual skills in-game (you tend to use Block plus whichever weapon and armour skills you're currently using at the same time, obviously), but I managed to level up my skills in such a way that they'd trickle down to maximum bonuses to my attributes – levelling pre-Skyrim  was nerdy and complicated, kids, but it did mean that it was possible to build a perfect character.

Well, maybe not perfect, but I got damn close: Selene emerged from the process a virtual demigod. I took her through all the various questlines – including catching vampirism from our old friend Vicente Valtieri (I wanted it to be from someone who mattered) – and at the end was Archmage of the Mage's Guild, Master of the Fighter's Guild, Grey Fox, Grand Champion of the Arena, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, Champion of Cyrodiil and, thanks to mods both legit and fan-made, a pirate queen and Countess of Kvatch as well. These disparate themes were woven together by the unifying vampire narrative – she was an evil chessmaster putting on an act for her comrades, using the political disruption of the Oblivion Crisis to end up head of every major faction in the province. Chancellor Ocato might've been nominally in charge, but like Octavian, she was the one doing the actual paperwork; his power depended entirely on what she was signing, and whether she chose to tell him.

Selene would stave off existential boredom by keeping herself too busy to think; tearing all over the province on her demon horse, spending a day at the Arcane University here, then a day at the Chorrol Fighters Guild HQ, sneaking out at night to steal shit in the Grey Cowl, bringing the good news back to the Cheydinhal Sanctuary... and, on her days off, ruling the rebuilt city of Kvatch and visiting with her friend Janus Hassildor, who needed a friend after the sad demise of his wife. Since none of the factions in Skyrim seemed to talk to the others, it was likely only Ocato realised she was taking up multiple seats on the Elder Council, and there wasn't much he could do about it anyway. Heading several guilds at once wasn't actually illegal, it just hadn't been done before.

And so, I imagined, the years wore on. Then the decades. Then the centuries. It was a satisfying story, the evil-but-benevolent dictator rising to ultimate power through sheer hard work. When Skyrim came out, set 200 years later, it wasn't clear how that story was meant to fit in with the canon history, but she must've been out of power by the time of the Great War, or the Thalmor never would've made it to the Imperial City. So where was she? I don't know, but I hope she was with her consort Hassildor. No I don't think there was anything between them, but sometimes, on the very long days, I liked to think he wished there was.

I thought about resurrecting her for Skyrim, but instead decided to let sleeping dogs lie. And I was glad I did. The Skyrim game mechanic was so different it wasn't really possible to build up a "perfect" character anymore; now it was a question of optimisation. That led me to decide I'd make ten characters instead, one of each race, and with a little planning (via a text-only spreadsheet) I was able to work out a way to sample every weapon type, magic type and Standing Stone blessing as well. The result was five characters I was very fond of, a couple I was reasonably pleased with, and one that I really never got a handle on. Here are their stories in no particular order.

Hamilcar, the Redguard
One of the earliest was Hamilcar. His story was of a mercenary no longer welcome in his homeland and forced to make a living in Skyrim instead. He arrived in Dawnstar by ship with nothing but the sword at his side (this character was aided by the scimitar and clothes set lying under a boat just downshore from Dawnstar). He worked in the mines to make a start, sold the Quicksilver for phat cash and smelted the Iron to make his first set of armour. He had enough septims from the sale of Quicksilver to buy the leather he needed, and even a couple of Corundum ingots to make the Banded versions of the breastplate and shield.

Now equipped, he went out into the big bad world and started ganking bad guys for money. And of course ended up where all such people end up, a member of the Companions, meaning this was the character who earned all the Werewolf traits as well. As a Redguard from the home of sword-singers, I was pleased that starting scimitar was the only sword he needed to carry – with his Smithing skill sharpening it, it was competitive all the way through the game. He also ended up using the Targe of the Blooded as his shield, because it looked wicked, and ended up the only one with a full Blocking perk tree – cannoning into bad guys and sending them flying was pretty fun.

I was still working out exactly who would have which Standing Stone blessing, because although Skyrim made them changeable, I wanted to treat them like the birthsigns in Oblivion and Morrowind (yes, I know you level up quicker using the Guardian Stones, but with ten characters I was hardly out to save time, was I?). It took a while but eventually I hit on giving him the Lady Stone; the bonuses to Health and Stamina regen were perfect for his trade, and in the fluff Redguards are prone to knightly orders. So, you know, chivalry, Companions, courtly romance... Lady Stone. It all sort of gelled, and I got a real kick out of what Bethesda had done: in the Elder Scrolls, your Knight in Shining Armour is probably a black man.

Zamagh, the Orc
Another favourite was this greenskin, because he had one of the best character arcs of all. Zamagh arrived in Skyrim from Cyrodiil, having been kicked out of wherever he was living before because he was too old. By their own custom, Orcs who reach a certain age without becoming chief, taking a wife and having children seek a glorious death while they can still die on their feet: Zamagh was expected to do this, but in his heart he knew it wasn't over. He wasn't too old; the strength of his body and the fire in his heart still burned strong. So he sought a land in turmoil where he'd be tested every minute, and set about settting himself up. I gave him the Steed Stone that makes you fast and strong because it seemed right for him to make light of burdens; and inspired by the Orcish Berserker Rage ability, I decided he should never defend, only attack, and put all his perk points into wielding warhammers and dual-wielding axes (the only time I dual-wielded, and it worked out pretty well; bleeding damage stacks up pretty fast when you're hacking like a mad bastard).

Full credit to Bethesda for the face algorithms too, this was one of the best I did: that brow had a slight hint of weary melancholy, until he put his helmet on, when he suddenly looked pissed off.

Zamagh was accepted into the strongholds, though never as a member, and then one day, it happened: he completed a quest and was granted Volendrung, the weapon of his lord Malacath. He known it the whole time! He wasn't too old, he was Malacath's chosen – spurned and ostracised even by other Orcs! With that weapon on his back, he was able to ask for the hand of a stronghold princess, and set up a home with her – three actually, since he became my Hearthfire house-builder (it would've been awesome if he'd been able to build his own Orc stronghold; I know there are mods for this, but I kept modding to a minimum with Skyrim because it took up so much more disc space than Oblivion). That's what success looked like for Zamagh: rejected by the strongholds of Cyrodiil, he became one of the biggest land barons in Skyrim. That he was also a close-combat monster was just a bonus.

Elenirya, the High Elf
I was surprised to find I don't have any screenshots of her, but that kinda shows the problem with her; she was just another a generic mage. She ended up Archmage of the College of Winterhold, of course, and it was fun to play a pure mage, but she wasn't that memorable. Except for one thing: High Elves have lots of magic but are especially vulnerable to magic, which I turned up to eleven by giving her the Apprentice Stone, which does the exact same thing. Doubled up on magicka and weakness to magicka, she pumped out spells like the motherfucking Chernobyl of Skyrim, but she died to harsh language, stiff breezes and sharp looks. You don't want to know what happened if a dragon showed up. Most of the time she could stay out of trouble by spawning a pair of Dremora Lords as meatshields, but it was really, really important she had those meatshields.

The premise I had in mind for her was why-oh-why would the Thalmor let one of their best and brightest defect to Skyrim?/Oh right because she's lesbian, but I couldn't get her to marry either Faralda or Nirya. Too bad.

Delas Reveni, the Dark Elf
The basic idea behind my Dark Elf was duality: culturally arrogant yet under Ulfric's boot, a proud people lacking a homeland to be proud of, great warriors and yet great wizards, good people who were former slavers. This duality led me to the spellsword path – steel vs magicka – as well as the duality of Restoration vs Destruction. Casting fireballs one minute, healing spells the next, I decided he'd be my Restoration-focused character (it wasn't until after him I realised how damn useful the Restoration tree could be). Since he'd mostly be using his magic in combat, I gave him the Atronach Stone so he could soak up some of that damage and the penalty to the recharge rate wouldn't be such a worry (so officially he was a mage that wore heavy armour rather than a warrior that could use magic). Since he needed to free his people, of course he joined the Legion to overthrow Ulfric, and in the game of course he succeeded and bought Hjerim and had a family and lived happily ever after in the free city of Windhem.

I loved the Dawnguard armour: equal parts steel and heavy raincoat, which seems appropriate for vampire hunters.

In the grand narrative in my head, though, that never happened: the Stormcloaks win the civil war in my canon, and he was wounded at the Siege of Whiterun, playing no further part in the war. Instead, he ended up a broken man, drifting, until he was suddenly recruited by the Dawnguard. This was a huge bit of luck, because though I didn't know it when making the character, the Dawnguard expansion had undead-only Sun Damage spells – spells that belonged to the School of Restoration! He arrived at the Dawnguard already a master of Restoration, the perfect character for vampire hunting, I had a blast burning vampires alive with magical sunlight and completing the Dawnguard questline. He ended up one of my favourite characters of all, and it happened purely by serendipity.

Angelique, the Breton
Angelique was a character who started out as one thing and ended up another, and was all the better for it. She was supposed to be the evil counterweight to Elenirya, a pure mage who conjured undead instead of Daedra, blasted lightning instead of fire, used the Star of Azura in its Black form, etc, etc. I liked the idea that they had classes together at the College and were bitter rivals until Angelique ragequit and went off to do her own thing.

In the event, what she became was a fucking medieval fantasy urban guerrilla. She was a Breton, so it made sense that she ended up siding with the Reachmen around Markarth, who in the fluff were mongrel half-bred Bretons anyway. When she helped the King in Rags escape Cydna Mine she inherited a full set of Reach armour, which she wore from then on. In a nearby dungeon she got her hands on the Eye of Melka, a Reach-style staff. So slowly she morphed away from being all about lightning bolts and necromancy and became more interested in sneaking and casting spell traps (the IEDs of Skyrim) to liberate the Reach from Nordic rule. She wound up with a lot of misused perk points, sure, but thanks to Quiet Casting by the end of the game the Markarth city guards could barely even roll over in bed without setting off a Fire Rune. Her Conjuration skills, built up while reanimating the dead, were put to good use summoning Bound Bows instead ("Weapons? No, of course I'm not carrying any weapons...") and the Soul Trap perk on bound weapons proved a handy way of filling Black Soul Gems.

In short, she was the perfect guerrilla terrorist; married to Ainethach for respectability, but living in Vlindrel Hall while he looked after his mine, she was a respected member of her community who happened to be working diligently to tear it down. Her necromancy, I now knew, was actually smoothing the way towards becoming a Hagraven (but again, minimal modding, so that finale never happened). Finally, her belated stealth abilities led me to one of the most hilarious tactics of the whole frickin' game: sneaking into a crowd of Markarth guards and using the Ritual Stone power to reanimate their dead comrades – all their dead comrades – then skedaddling as the chaos started. Oh, the joy, the sheer joy of them hacking their own late friends to pieces! When they tell you playing outside used to be more fun than video games, believe me, that's only because video games were shitty back then.

Kha-Azir, the Khajiit
Your standard Khajiiti thief: I even had him walk around in Fine Boots early on because I couldn't resist the pun. He was supposed to be under the Tower Stone – you know, born with doors unlocking under his touch, of course he grew up to be a thief – but when I got sick of the Tower Unlock prompt every time I went to pick a lock, I went back to the Thief Stone just for sanity's sake. Despite that, I ended up having a lot of fun with him: in any Elder Scrolls, the Thieves Guild questline is always the coolest.

Only gamers know how much work went into this trophy cabinet.

What really worked for this guy was that nearly all the thievery happens in the four major cities, so you can get there using the fast-travel carriages. That means you never need walk around the game world, never meet the rough characters and giant spiders it contains, and so never build up your weapons skills. That means as you level up and the baddies get tougher, you're left completely helpless in a fight and have no option but to leg it or hide – you know, like a thief.

Sleethea, the Argonian
Another fairly standard character, the cold-blooded Argonian assassin (har-har. Argonians are clearly warm-blooded or Skyrim would kill them to death). She was born under the Serpent Stone more for the "destiny unwritten" fluff than the paralysing-poison ability, which was very rarely used. Sleethea ended up being interesting and fun because she herself was roleplaying. From the start I dressed her up as just another civvie, getting Alchemy lessons from Lami and Arcadia and paying for them by chopping wood, but this was her harmless disguise; she was my Dark Brotherhood character. So in between all the interesting stealth-murder the Brotherhood has you do, I married her to Scouts-Many-Marshes and made her sleep in the Argonian Assemblage with the rest of them, undercover, unsuspected. I gave her one of the Dawnguard's Steel Crossbows (because a crossbow is just the weapon of an assassin, isn't it?) but didn't work much on her archery, since it was just a means to deliver poison. I also fully charged the Ebony Blade, which was one of the best decisions of the whole character: not only is Mephala the perfect daedra for a professional killer, the Blade's health-absorption properties gave her a fighting chance ob those rare occasions she had to stand up for herself, and the process of befriending and slaughtering key people to charge the blade felt absolutely in character.

She is of course the one who assassinated the Emperor Titus Mede II, which in my headcanon was the event that kicked off the whole Skyrim civil war. Then she moved Scouts-Many-Marshes to their new home, Windstad Manor, where she spends her days breeding fishes and growing deadly ingredients to grind into poisons while her husband wonders what the hell her real deal is.

Thaewen, the Wood Elf
Thaewen was my last character, and she never really took off. By headcanon she was in Skyrim to stir up some trouble, keep the province burning for her Thalmor masters. In the early game she had a Native American theme going; Mohawk, Fur Armour, a steel war axe to represent a Tomahawk, sneaking around shooting shit dead like a good Wood Elf should. I gave her the cannibalistic Ring of Namira to represent the Wood Elf custom of eating those they kill (it's in the fluff, look it up). But this weak build didn't last long, and after that she never really had a theme. I wanted to make her an Agent, a stealthy intel operative to be used by the Blades for assassination and sabotage, but the Blades only seemed to have use for front-line tanks (related: even in Oblivion I was disappointed there was no Blades Light Armour. Dressing like a ninja in blue-and-gold Blades silk would've been frickin' sweet). So she gravitated to the Dawnguard, then contracted vampirism, then joined the Thieves Guild and ended up finding her niche wearing Nightingale Armour, the permanent guardian of Nightingale Hall. I originally gave her the Shadow Stone (I know, how the hell do you see a shadow in the constellations?) which grants an invisibility spell, but given both the Twilight Sepulcher and Vampirism give you the same thing it ended up being redundant. On the plus side the Nightingale Armour bonus to Illusion magic complemented the Vampiric bonus to the same, but yeah, a muddled story that didn't really go anywhere.

Viggo, the Nord
At last, my prime character, and my favourite. Yes, a complete Marty Stu but at least I admit it; I wish I looked like him, and I wish I could go around having as much fun as him, ganking dragons and looting stuff. I gave him the Lord Stone, because the extra armour and magic resistance would be useful when fighting dragons, which he did, a lot. A true Nord, Viggo Dragonborn stopped Alduin, visited Sovngarde, joined the Stormcloaks and freed Skyrim from the Elf-bowing cowards in the Imperial City.

All pretty standard stuff; where it got interesting was with the Dragonborn expansion. I wanted Viggo to be the one to slay a Legendary Dragon and so earn the Steam Achievement (I got all the Achievements, by the way), but that required a ridiculously high level that was almost the maximum you could have. Since he didn't have any magic skills (the Voice stood in for his magic), I went through and reset all his skills and levelled them up again. That meant switching from Light to Heavy Armour – the standard Light Armours looked so cool and Nordic, I thought the Nords just have to be the one people that sends its warriors into battle in Light Armour: when Sovngarde awaits you're not scared of dying, they breed fast (Skyrim is the only province that's overrun with children) and they move fast even as an army; no wonder the Thalmor see them as their number one strategic threat. When I switched to Heavy Armour, however, the Dragonbone Armour surprised me by being kinda badass, and I loved the serrated Dragonbone Greatsword, which became his primary weapon from then on because awesome.

Anyway, killed the Legendary Dragon, did the Dragonborn quest, got feels from re-visiting Morrowind, then at the climax Hermaeus Mora (the driving force behind the whole quest; think a miniature Cthulhu, all gribbly things with tentacles) reveals I've finally become his greatest instrument? That's when it hit me; I knew how to end this story.

Too late, Viggo realised he'd accumulated too much power for one man. Too late, he realised unparalleled martial might + a knack for Dragon Shouts added up to someone who could remake the world however he saw fit. And now this godlike individual was caught in the coils of Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of Fate. There was only one way to beat him, and it wasn't by fighting; you can't fight fate. Any action, no matter how well-intentioned, would now be in His service. There was only one way to stop it: going totally passive. So, with sorrow in his heart, he climbed the Throat of the World one last time, joined Paarthurnax at the summit, donned the robes of the Greybeards (courtesy of some console commands from me), and submitted to the tyranny of the Paarthurnax's Way of the Voice.

And somewhere in Apocrypha, Hermaeus Mora screamed a Big No.

Damn, that was a story I liked playing out.

Mietta Sergianus, the Imperial
I think it's time they changed "Imperials" to "Cyrodiilics" or something since they don't really have an empire anymore, but ahem: born under the Lover Stone, because she'd have so many disparate skills to master (and also because it fills in for sleeping, which is handy for a character who'll be up all night), Mietta's headcanon story was an ambitious legate who requested duty in Skyrim to give her career a leg-up, then found out every ambitious legate in the Legions had thought the same thing and swarmed to the place like it was a bathtub drain. Ignored and looking for something to do with herself, she made herself available to the Jarl of Solitude, undertaking a dangerous and ultimately very important quest to cast the ghost of Queen Potema out of the catacombs. Except that on her way through she contracted Porphyric Haemophilia (no really, she did – I was so chuffed when the game came to the party like that), and, not recognising the symptoms, discovered too late what it meant. So began her new life in undeath, night eternal.

Obviously she became my candidate for the Volkihar questline, walking off with Auri-El's bow and Harkon's Sword. I like to imagine she and Delas knew each other in the Legion in the old days, former comrades gone full circle to bitterest enemies. I also like to imagine she became a surrogate daughter to Lord Harkon after Serana defected to the Dawnguard in the Delas story (again, I didn't know it while making the character, but she bore a striking resemblance to Serana). After a time as Harkon's wrist-hawk, she had the good fortune to be visiting Valeria in the Soul Cairn the day the Dawnguard stormed and sacked the castle. Mietta emerged days later to find the place empty and silent, and thought to herself: "What splendid luck. I am now the Mistress of Castle Volkihar and Queen of the Vampires by default, without having to do it myself, and it could be decades before the Dawnguard recover from their complacency and suspect anybody has moved back in. And by then I'll be ready."

So began her final form, which... heh, I said I wasn't going to resurrect Selene because perfection is impossible in Skyrim, but that's not strictly true. It's not impossible, just insanely time-consuming. Perfection in Oblivion was a matter of getting all the numbers up to 100; in Skyrim it's a matter of skill perks. Those are the limiting factor and end up defining your character. You get one perk each time you level up, and the average character will cease at roughly Level 50. For an especially developed character, maybe 60 or 70. If you're an autist who absolutely must grind up every skill, the standard game runs out halfway through Level 81.

Do you know how many skill perks there actually are? Two-hundred and fifty-three.

Obviously, even though the expansions technically allow you to level up indefinitely, there was no way I was going to grind that far up manually. Using the console I artificially gave her experience in all skills, then reset them and maxed them out again. From memory, I had to do this five or six times over for each skill, but it was worth it: in the space of an hour or so I'd made it to Level 253, had every single perk and so simulated multiple centuries of living and learning in Skyrim. The Vampire Queen was an out-and-out demigod; it took minutes of sustained attack for enemies to even make a dent in her massive health bar, and she could brush them aside any time with a couple of spells – if she could be bothered, for as a veteran of the Soul Cairn, she had summoning spells most necromancers had never even dreamed of. She was so powerful that she wasn't actually that much fun to play: after a couple of weeks I finally got sick of exploring the limits of the crafting system and finally uninstalled the game.

I still have their save files as a memento, even though I have no plans to play Skyrim ever again. I'm waiting for TES VI, whenever it comes out – hurry up with finish Fallout 4, would you Bethesda? – and have no interest in playing ESO, because playing an Elder Scrolls game with other people completely defeats the purpose for me. Besides, I have unfinished business with Morrowind.

But how cool is it that we can take this game engine, this thing which, really, boils down to killing things and taking their stuff – and use them to build narratives. Good narratives, some of them: the Orc who believed in himself when the world said he was too old; the Breton struggling to free her people and return them to their land; the Dark Elf who couldn't save his people, but found meaning again saving everyone; the Nord hero who made himself an un-hero to spite a god.

These are things like Terry Pratchett used to write about: the universe is actually a bunch of spinning rocks livened up with a handful of chemical and nuclear reactions. There's certainly nothing resembling meaning in all that; grind the thing down, sieve it all out as finely as you like and you won't find even the tiniest grain of something you could call "a story." We have to add that ourselves, indeed, can't help adding that ourselves, because it's what humans do. Because if we don't, awful things can happen. Because if we don't, what's the bloody point?

Hence all 11 stories above.

Hence also all god-knows-how-many stories in the Bible, including the ones in Daniel.

The universe has no inherent meaning my friends. And isn't that wonderful? We get to make our own.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Antiochus Epiphanies

This is the fifth part of a historical exploration of the beasts and empires of the book of Daniel. If you want to go through the first four parts (Living In The Past, Meet the Persians, What Really Happened At Thermopylae? and Meanwhile, In Judea...), go right ahead: expect much tl;dr and occasional moments of insight (as always, remember all dates are BCE and therefore count down, not up). Otherwise, let's get on with this post, where we finally get down to what the whole book of Daniel is about anyway.

Simple answer? It's about this arsehole:

His name was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and if you know your Greek you'll have spotted the problem already. If not, sit tight, we'll be getting to that. But first you've gotta know how we got to him.

Daniel's Third Beast
We've already seen the lion with the wings of an eagle was actually a cherub, a common symbol of ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms including the Neo-Babylonians; we've also seen the great bear with three bones in its mouth, symbolising the Persians and their three principle conquests; now we can consider Daniel's third beast:
After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. (Dan. 7:6)

As we know, after the Persian conquest of pretty much the entire known world, the former kingdom of Israel settled down under their new overlords and purred smug kittens for the next 200 years, picking up lots of Persian Zoroastrianism and incorporating it into Judaism. But then a minor tribal king named Alexander III – soon better known as Alexander the Great – put a serious ruffle in their fur by gathering up everything his father had put together and embarking on the mother of all road trips, as seen in Oliver Stone's 2004 flick ΛLΣXΛNDΣR (which actually spells "LLSXLNDSR" but we'll ignore that).

Why represent the Greeks with a leopard? Because the job was done fast. I actually spent a couple of hours once with Wikipedia open in one tab and Google Maps in the other, finding out what all the old locations are called today and following the route with the trip planner (not a bad hobby for a history geek). The exact hows and whys of Alexander's campaign aren't important to this blog however: suffice to say he took his army for a long walk, fought three major battles at the Granicus (334), Issus (333) and Gaugamela (331), and won all three, defeating the Persians in record time. From crossing the Hellespont in 334 until his death 323 was just eleven years. We couldn't conquer Iraq in eleven years; Alexander conquered Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. He did to the Archaemenid Persians what a strangler fig does to a tree: killed it dead and took its place.

So why four heads? Because when Alexander suddenly died, aged just 32, it caught off-guard everyone who'd assumed he had a few decades left in him, and kicking off the bloody rugby scrum history calls the wars of the diodochi, or Successors.

A Game of Diadems: the Wars of the Successors
The Greek sign of kingship was not a crown or throne, but a ribbon tied around the head known as a diadem. With the death of Alexander, it was suddenly the must-have fashion accessory in Babylon and all the best people were wearing it. A succession crisis is of course nothing unusual, but this one was made worse by the Macedonian army not having the long, stratified chain of command we associate with armies today. Instead they had a pool of officers called hetairoi, who were given command of this or that unit or combination of units on an ad-hoc basis. This flexibility had served them well in the war against Darius, but with their king dead and no recognisable heir (Roxana was still pregnant with Alexander's only child, which they didn't know would be a boy), none of them could pull rank on the others. When Alexander breathed his last it took them about eight seconds to realise each of them was now king of whatever he could take and hold. Civil war was inevitable.

For the next twenty-odd years the political scene was vibrant and exciting (as in, betrayal was common and a lot of people died), but by 306 they'd more or less sorted Alexander's conquests into four(ish) Successor Kingdoms: Lysimachus, one of Alexander's bodyguards, got Thrace; Cassander, a ravening wolfshead late to the party, got Macedonia and Greece; Antigonus, the governor of Phrygia, got Asia Minor and Syria; Ptolemy, another ex-bodyguard, got Egypt; and most important to our purposes, the former infantry general Seleucus got Babylonia.

Lump Greece, Macedonia and Thrace together, and you end up with four kingdoms that used to be Alexander's – the four heads of the leopard. This natural division of power might've been enough to keep the peace had the diodochi been less ambitious, but of course they couldn't leave each other alone. Seleucus was as guilty of this as anyone else, extending his (already enormous) landholdings as far as India, where he fought Chandragupta Maurya to a draw and walked away with 500 Indian war elephants as part of the peace deal. These were the ones with which he won the Battle of Ipsus, the culmination of all the political dickery since Alexander's death: seeing Antigonus growing too strong, Lysimachus, Cassander and Seleucus joined forces Voltron-style to stop him. Since it featured former brothers-in-arms hacking each other to death, Ipsus would've been a rather depressing affair if both sides hadn't been using war elephants, Seleucus matching 400 Indian elephants against 75 smaller and less-trained versions captured by Ptolemy in Ethiopia (they weren't "African elephants" as we call them today, since they were smaller than the Indian variety; likely they were a now-extinct sub-species native to the Red Sea area). Animal rights activists will disagree, but as a war nerd I find that kind of awesome; if you've gotta have an awful blood-draining feud, at least have it with war elephants.

That victory gave Seleucus control of much of Asia Minor, and also the nickname Nicator (the Victor). Greece was next on his hit list, and turning on his erstwhile allies he went on to defeat Lysimachus in the Battle of Corupedium (281), giving him control of nearly all Alexander's empire bar Egypt. But having brushed his fingertips on the throne Alexander had vacated, he was assassinated that same September, and with his death the last chance of reuniting the fractured Greek empire was lost forever. From here on it was diodochi all the way down.

Sigil: an eagle. Words: Incest is a Family Game
Victory at Ipsus had also brought Seleucus legal control of the province of Syria, which was understood to include everything from what is now the Turkish border right down to the Sinai peninsula. Unfortunately, ol' Ptolemy had already conquered Palestine and the Phoenician trade cities, so half of the territory was now in the hands of House Ptolemy. With Seleucus's death in 281, the people of Syria revolted, drawing the attention of both of the kings who supposedly ruled them – Seleucus's son Antiochus, known to history as Antiochus I Soter (Antiochus the Saviour), and Ptolemy's son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Ptolemy the Brother-Loving, probably because of all the help he gave his two brothers in Macedonia). Meet the new gen; same as the old gen. What followed was the first of six (six!) so-called Syrian Wars, a series of on-again, off-again conflicts lasting more than eighty years that spilled a lot of blood, wasted a lot of money, maybe swapped Damascus back and forth like a cheap whore, but otherwise accomplished little. Caught in the middle, the Israelites recorded this sad little saga as a post-hoc "prophecy" in Daniel Ch 11, "The Kings of the South and the North."

Sigil: an anchor. Words: Speak Hellenic or Die
In the winter of 262-261 Antiochus I Soter was succeeded by his son, Antiochus II Theos ("God." Apparently he had the ego of all time and no concept of subtlety). In 246, he in turn was poisoned by his wife/cousin Laodice after divorcing her as part of a peace deal with House Ptolemy, whose condition had been that he marry one of their daughters, a certain Berenice. Says verse 6 of Daniel 11: "The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be handed over, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her" (Berenice's father Ptolemy Philadephus died about the same time as she and Antiochus).

The throne passed to their son Seleucus II Callinicus (the Gloriously Triumphant), an epithet a trifle overdone considering he inherited the Syrian clusterfuck his father and grandfather had created and did little to solve it. He lost control of Asia Minor when the Gauls invaded and forged their own kingdom of Galatia; he fought off Ptolemy III, then his own half-brother Antiochus Hierax (the Hawk), until sometime in 226 he was killed falling off his horse. He passed the diadem to his elder son Seleucus III Ceraunus (the Thunderbolt – I bet he strutted that one), who reigned only three years before he was assassinated and the diadem passed to his younger brother, Antiochus III.

Having inherited the throne in in the year 222, aged just 18, Antiochus III went down in history as Antiochus the Great more because he was vain enough to briefly call himself the Basileus Megas, or Great King, the traditional title of the lords of Babylon. He didn't move the Syrian situation along very much either, but not for lack of trying. Daniel records:
His sons will prepare for war and assemble a great army, which will sweep on like an irresistible flood and carry the battle as far as his fortress. Then the king of the South will march out in a rage and fight against the king of the North, who will raise a large army, but it will be defeated. When the army is carried off, the king of the South will be filled with pride and will slaughter many thousands, yet he will not remain triumphant... (Dan 11:10-14)
In other words, the sons of Seleucus Callinicus (i.e. Seleucus Ceraunus and Antiochus the Great) will prepare for and fight the Battle of Raphia (217) near the great fortress of Gaza, and lose 10,000 soldiers in one day. Thus the Syrian situation briefly went from a stalemate to a bloody stalemate, buying House Ptolemy a respite while Antiochus the Great went off to do his conquering elsewhere. And at this he was rather successful, restoring the Seleucid kingdom almost back to the enormous boundaries it had enjoyed in Nicator's day.

A balanced, decently-trained military can do that for you.

S.P.Q.R. Bitches
But if his life wasn't complicated enough, he soon had to contend with an ambitious new player with a habit of backing their words with iron, a city-state nobody had ever heard of from a salt route in the arse-end of Italy: Rome.

The Romans were on the up, already masters of northern Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Spain, and a lot of the cities Antiochus had been conquering had been shedding refugees that had fled to Rome and made all sorts of uninformed prejudicial remarks about House Seleucus. If that wasn't enough, he also had a Carthaginian refugee named Hannibal in his court egging him on. It wasn't long before Antiochus the Great was declaring himself "champion of Greek freedom against Roman domination," and invading Greece proper.

And of course, getting his arse kicked, because this was the war that gave Rome control of Greece. In the autumn of 192 the Romans sent an army under Scipio soon-to-be Asiaticus, younger brother of Africanus, who met the Seleucid army at Thermopylae and trounced them using the same goat path that had hamstrung Leonidas. Yes, that wasn't just fanfic, this was a thing that actually happened: Hannibal Barca had a hand in a military action where Alexander the Great's army fought Roman legions under the command of the little brother of Scipio Africanus – at Thermopylae. Which makes this the most awesome paragraph I have ever written.

After inflicting another defeat at Magnesia (190), the Romans offered harsh peace terms, requiring Antiochus's middle son to be sent to Rome as a hostage (they couldn't take the eldest son and heir, as the Romans allowed no reigning monarch to cross the sacred boundary into their city, and an heir could of course become a reigning monarch at any moment). Thus at last we meet our star, for this middle son was of course our friend, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

At the same time, the Romans imposed a huge indemnity payment that the kingdom could ill-afford, which had severe knock-on effects and led to the first real violation of the Jews. To get this part of the story, you really need to ask your Catholic friends to borrow their Bible and read 1 and 2 Maccabees (if you don't have any Catholic friends, shame on you, you'll have to do a Google search instead). The Maccabees books weren't declared canon until 1546, i.e. in the middle of the Protestant Reformation – 2 Maccabees contains the scriptural justification for Purgatory, which Pope Paul III was keen to uphold and Martin Luther was equally keen to shuffle off (besides which he was a notorious anti-semite, so the history of those evil Christ-killing Jews probably wasn't a priority). Unfortunately, leaving Maccabees out of scripture meant these books sort of dropped off the radar entirely in Protestant languages like English, which was problematic because it left the latter half of Daniel open to schizoids like John Darby who think it's about the end of the world. But that's what happens when you read a coded message without the crib.

Anyway, the weird religious enclave formerly known as Israel had transferred from the lands of the Ptolemies to the lands of the Seleucids in 198, and the angels had held their breath. House Ptolemy had been highly tolerant of their peculiarities; House Seleucus surely would not. From the beginning, quite aware he ruled the most eastern of all the Successor Kingdoms, Seleucus Nicator had gone out of his way to make it the most zealously Hellenistic as well, working hard to sow unifying Greek culture all the way from the Levant to the Indus. Thousands of heartland Greeks had been uprooted and grafted into towns and cities across Babylonia, Greek was made the official language, and Zoroastrianism was abandoned in favour of the Olympians. The Jews gradually found themselves separating into two camps, the traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Honi and Onias, and the Hellenisers who preferred Greek names, Honi becoming Menelaus and Yeshua, of course, becoming Jesus. The power struggle between them of course revolved around the Temple and who was currently serving as High Priest: the coffers in the Temple which contained the shekel contributions were marked with Greek letters, and the inscription forbidding strangers to advance beyond a certain point in the Temple was now in Greek, no doubt made necessary by the droves of festival-going Jews from across the known world who no longer spoke Aramaic. If the culture clash wasn't hitting home yet, Hellenism also meant eating unclean foods like goose and wild boar, and of course they were big on homosexuality, as I've outlined before:
In ancient Greece, a couple usually comprised of a conservative older man (the erastes, usually translated "lover") and a pretty younger man (the eromenos, or "beloved"), who was usually a teenager. This was intentional, as Plutarch noted: "Their lawgivers, designing to soften whilst they are young their natural fierceness... gave great encouragement to these friendships... to temper the manners and characters of the youth." ... Xenophon even wrote that many of them solemnified their relationship in a religious ceremony – virtually a marriage – which, since the cult of Herakles was especially strong in Thebes, took place at the shrine of Herakles's lover and comrade-in-arms, Iolaus.
This of course did not gel with "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable," which Westboro Baptist will remind you is Leviticus 18:22. In short, the traditionalist Jews felt themselves surrounded by creeping heresy, and it would've made the whole region a ticking time bomb had Antiochus not been wise enough to let them live, in the words of the historian Josephus, "according to the law of their forefathers."

When he died in 187, however, things changed swiftly. The throne passed to his son Seleucus IV Philopator (the Father-Loving), the middle son (now heir) Antiochus IV was returned home and hostage duty was passed to the youngest son Demetrius I Soter. But the Father-Lover was anything but kind to his father's memory. With the deadline for his next indemnity payment bearing down, in 175 young Philly sent a minister named Heliodorus to seize the temple treasury in Jerusalem.
But when he arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror. For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien; it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armour and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on either side of him and flogged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up, put him on a stretcher, and carried him away — this man who had just entered the aforesaid treasury with a great retinue and all his bodyguard but was now unable to help himself. They recognized clearly the sovereign power of God. (2 Mac 3:24-28)
Famously painted by Raphael in The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (1512)
According to 2 Maccabees he went home empty-handed, and I can't find any other evidence that says otherwise, but either he was ambitious or needed to conceal this fact, because when he returned to Antioch this same Heliodorus assassinated Seleucus and claimed the throne for himself. Heliodorus ruled briefly, using Seleucus's infant son (also called Antiochus) as a puppet, before Antiochus IV returned and promptly ousted Heliodorus and ruled as regent for his young nephew. This arrangement lasted about five minutes before he had the boy murdered, because you don't leave loose ends in the game of diadems.

Now ruling in his own name, in 170 Antiochus IV finally got something done on the Syrian front when he launched a pre-emptive strike against the Ptolemies and made it as far as the city of Alexandria itself, something nobody had managed since, well, Alexander.
He will be succeeded by a contemptible person who has not been given the honour of royalty. He will invade the kingdom when its people feel secure, and he will seize it through intrigue. Then an overwhelming army will be swept away before him; both it and a prince of the covenant will be destroyed. After coming to an agreement with him, he will act deceitfully, and with only a few people he will rise to power. When the richest provinces feel secure, he will invade them and achieve what neither his fathers nor his forefathers did. He will distribute plunder, loot and wealth among his followers. (Dan 11:21-24)
The "prince of the covenant" was probably High Priest Onias III, who was murdered that year (others translate it "confederate prince" and see it as a reference to Ptolemy VI Philometor, but I disagree because he wasn't destroyed; he outlived Antiochus by a considerable margin). knowing Rome would step in if the status quo was disturbed, Ptolemy VI was allowed to keep the throne as a Seleucid puppet – an arrangement which lasted only until the Seleucid army pulled up stakes, because as soon as they were gone the Egyptians turned around and hailed the younger brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (Gross Belly, so named after his morbid obesity) their pharaoh instead. The brothers Ptolemy decided to rule jointly rather than start a civil war, an example the rest of the successor kingdoms really could've learned from.

In 168 Antiochus launched a second invasion of Egypt, aiming to finish the business once and for all, and this time the Romans acted. "At the appointed time he will invade the South again," Daniel says, "but this time the outcome will be different from what it was before. Ships of Kittim will oppose him, and he will lose heart." It's referring to one of the most famous diplomatic incidents of all time: Rome elected to send Gaius Popillius Laenas, a single proconsul (i.e. one of last year's consuls, the office you occupy when you're fresh out of office) escorted only by lictors, the civil servants carrying fasces (bundles of sticks) that were the physical representation of power in Rome. As he came down the Canopic branch of the Nile, Antiochus found his path blocked by Laenas and his retinue – no army within five hundred Roman miles, remember – who sweetly told him to turn his army around and go back to Antioch, or consider himself in a state of war with the Roman Republic. This act always seemed to bluff eastern kings, who didn't know what to make of it. Antiochus asked for time to discuss it with his war council; Laenas stepped forward and drew a line in the sand all the way around Antiochus, and said: "Before you cross this circle, I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate" – the implication being that Rome would declare war if the king stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately. Weighing his options, Antiochus slunk away with his tail between his legs.

The Abomination of Desolation
The term “abomination” (Hebrew toevah or siqqus) appears more than a hundred times in the Old Testament and refers to a great sin, one usually punishable by death. In Daniel the phrase is ha-siqqus misomem (שִׁקּוּץ מְשׁמֵם), literally, "one who makes desolate." Siqqus is always connected with idolatry, and paired with misomem seems to indicate that something has been destroyed, made worthless, the ultimate desecration. That's a big clue as to what was about to happen.

While he'd been in Egypt, the rumour had got out that Antiochus had been killed, and the Jews took the opportunity to have a bit of a rebellion. Their leader was the deposed High Priest Jason, who had his own reasons:
[The Jews] were divided into two parties, the orthodox Hasideans (Pious Ones) and a reform party that favoured Hellenism. For financial reasons Antiochus supported the reform party and, in return for a considerable sum, permitted the high priest, Jason, to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem and to introduce the Greek mode of educating young people. In 172, for an even bigger tribute, he appointed Menelaus in place of Jason. In 169, however, while Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt, Jason conquered Jerusalem – with the exception of the citadel – and murdered many adherents of his rival Menelaus. (“Antiochus IV Epiphanes,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003 Deluxe Edition, Britannica Corp, 2003, referenced on
Jason's 1,000-man rebellion attracted swift vengeance:
When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery. (2 Mac 5:11-14)
The numbers might be inflated, but the plot is accurate: the traditionalist faction's consciousness of their status as a people apart made them too independent for the Seleucid kingdom. The solution? Abolish Judaism, which Antiochus made his mission from this moment on. He was well placed to do this, because like all all the Seleucids he had an epithet, Epiphanes, that couldn't have been more perfect for baiting the Jews.

"Epiphanes" means god made manifest.

In the diodochi world virtually every statue proclaimed someone "Saviour of Mankind and God Made Manifest" – to the eastern mind, standard laudatory stuff. But when "god manifest" came to the land of YHWH, shit had to get real. That same year, 167, Antiochus banned circumcision, started gathering and burning copies of the Torah, and built the Akra, a fort in the middle of Jerusalem to keep the city under heel (hence, "he will worship a god of fortresses" in Dan 11:38). But the main event came when he deliberately profaned the Second Temple, placing an idol of Zeus on the altar of burnt offerings and ordering the sacrifice of a pig* – an unclean animal – to rededicate the Temple to Zeus.

To reiterate: He put this...

...and this... this.

Can we even begin to imagine how this went down? This was the famous Abomination of Desolation, the ha-siqqus misomem, the ultimate sacrilege; this was the "time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations." Antiochus IV Epiphanes, stand revealed and take a bow: the King Who Exalts Himself, he of Many Blasphemous Names, the Little Horn (*giggle* "I do miss the old names...").

The traditionalist Jews would not – could not – take this insult lying down. Opposition rallied around an elderly villager from a priestly family named Mattathias, and his five sons: Judas called Maccabeus, Jonathan, Simon, John and Eleazar. Mattathias destroyed the Greek altar that had been set up in his home village of Modein, and killed Antiochus's representative – kicking off the Maccabean Revolt, a war that was to last the next 24 years.

We don't need to know the outcome of the revolt, however, to comprehend the book of Daniel. We don't need to know that the traditionalists ultimately won, gaining an independence for Israel that lasted until the Romans came in 63, although it was a Pyrrhic victory that failed to excise Hellenism from the Holy Land and set the stage for King Herod – we don't need to know all that, because the authors of Daniel didn't seem to know that. After tracking accurately from Nebuchadnezzar right down the centuries, the "prophecies" of Daniel abruptly stop right here during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes; it seems to know nothing of the reconstruction of the Temple, or of the tyrant's death in 164. Daniel was written (or collated – we'll get to that another time) with the message "Hang in there, God has it all under control," while the tyrant was still in power, still applying the jackboot, with no victory or hope of victory anywhere in sight. It's like Anne Frank writing, "stay strong, this evil will not last," from within the barbed wire of Auschwitz. It's a book from Saturday, not Sunday, and it faces the despair full on and never flinches.

As someone who knows a bit about despair, I find that heroic.

So if the Daniel is ultimately about Antiochus, why does it waste our time talking about Nebuchadnezzar? Because tyrants don't take criticism well; it's one of the things that makes them tyrants. If you want to talk some smack about a mad dictator, it's safer to do so in code.
The authors of Daniel – it's a compilation of varying voices, stories and languages – couldn't safely talk directly about their oppression under Antiochus Epiphanes, so instead they wrote about Nebuchadnezzar. And lest their readers miss the point, they added that whole latter half with its dreams and visions reminding us that empires come and empires go and that this latest oppressor and conqueror too will fall, just like Nebuchadnezzar did.

You're familiar with this approach if you've ever watched the television show M*A*S*H. That classic sit-com was set during the Korean War, but it wasn't really about Korea – it was about Vietnam. Vietnam was still too current, too raw and too polarizing to address directly when M*A*S*H was originally written and broadcast. The Korean War on the show provided a kind of surrogate or parallel that allowed us to talk about and deal with something we couldn't otherwise have discussed. – Fred Clark, TF: Must be the clouds in my eyes,
This is probably still going on today, literally this very day; I can imagine an isolated Jewish family somewhere in Syria, huddling desperately while ISIS thugs are kicking in doors all over town, one of the parents abruptly saying, "Have I ever told you how savta got away from Hitler...?"

Not all oppressors are mighty

But Daniel doesn't quite end there. Looking to the future, the authors of Daniel saw another beast, another empire to come. It turned out they weren't much mistaken.

* Intriguingly, it seems a swine was the appropriate offering to Zeus Epoptes, i.e. Zeus the Watcher or Zeus the Overseer, just the deity you'd want on side if you were trying to get a rebellious province back in line. More poignantly, it was also made as a burnt offering – in Greek, a holókaustos. The cult of Zeus Epoptes was located back in Attica, however, so it might not have made the trip to the lands of the Seleucids. And in any case I cannot credit that Antiochus didn't know exactly what he was doing.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

No, You Don't Need A Gun To Overthrow The Government

So this showed up in my news feed last month:

And I began to feel a chill wind on my neck that there are people in this country who look at the amazing results of the Firearms Act of 1996 and the gun buyback scheme that have made us the go-to example anytime the Americans raise the issue of gun control... and want to go back to the fucking bad old days.

I posted a reply, asking who this law was supposed to benefit, but nobody from the LDP answered. One of those on my friendslist did reply with something about "responsible gun owners," but I think we can dismiss that straight away, because I don't think I've ever met an irresponsible one. A majority of my immediate family are SSAA members who like their target shooting, and there have been multiple occasions where we've had to eat dinner in front of the TV because they've commandeered the dinner table reloading shells. They're enthusiasts who keep all their shit locked in a safe as per requirements, and they're not who the LDP are targetting. They made that clear when they posted a video revealing this is explicitly about self defence, so let the record show: nothing I am about to say applies to hunters and sportsmen.

Now, to be fair, all credit to the LDP for posting their policies like this so we can discuss them openly. Be nice if there was more of it. But for those who are less familiar with the mythology of the loony Right, let's be clear there's only one reason they want unregistered semi-automatics out there, and it's this scene from Red Dawn (1984).

No really, that's it. Because otherwise Patrick Swayze can't fight off the Russians Chinese North Koreans. Libertarians both here and in the States are perfectly happy to see mass shootings on a monthly basis so they can fight off an imagined invasion in the indeterminate future.

The fact that firearms won't actually help them do that doesn't seem to register.

In all seriousness, this isn't even a question anymore. In the hands of you, an untrained individual, a gun offers five-eights of fuck-all degrees of actual protection. No, it doesn't. No, it's not your opinion, you're just wrong. Whether through narcissism or human brain just sucking at statistics, everyone assumes they'll turn out to be the exception. Well, no you won't. Only 1 in 5 untrained people ever fire their weapons in combat, which means the odds are you – yes, you, personally – will not shoot back if someone comes at you with a gun. And that's damn sensible of you. As this fantastic video shows, having some cold steel on your hip won't make a damn bit of difference when the shit gets thick. Your best moves are ducking for cover or running for it.

Likewise, in an article on The Nation titled "Tactical Experts Destroy the NRA's Heroic Gunslinger Fantasy", some tactical experts destroy the NRA's heroic gunslinger fantasy (although it's more or a nut-and-bolt dismantling. Very satisfying). The FDchief has a way with words that gets the message across much more colourfully, though, because you'll notice he used to be in the fucking army.
Look, I may have been just a simple grunt medic, but I was smart enough to figure out that the way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a fucking battery six with HE-quick in effect. Except you can't fucking do that in a shopping mall or a theatre.

And short of that, you're pretty much just tossing the dice.

Teaching a human being to take effective deadly action is a damn difficult thing. We spend weeks and months training Joe and Molly to do that and the statistics show that we only succeed in about 30-50% of the time. Most people – even most trained soldiers – react to danger by getting their heads down and trying to stay in defilade.

But let's assume that the training works and our hero heads towards the sound of shooting. What does he or she encounter?

Fucking chaos, that's what. The nutter is the center of it, shooting left and right... but everyone else is amplifying the chaos; screaming, running, dying... it's total mayhem.

It takes an assload of training to even begin to sort this stuff out, and without experience the likelihood of sorting it wrong is damned likely; that's why we try and make veterans into our combat NCOs. Because they've had to sort through this gibbering chaos and hopefully – seeing as they're still alive – have gotten it right.

But there's another, even more complicating and difficult factor here.

This isn't a straightforward military red-on-blue. There's at least four factions; the "bad guy" shooter(s), the prospective "good guy" shooter(s) – if more than one made more fraught by having no connection or experience working together, meaning just as likely to mistake each other for the "bad guy" – the people being shot at... and the police.

The coppers have NO idea who the "bad guy" is. To them anyone with a weapon out is just as likely to be the murderer, which has, in previous massacres, nearly led to blue-on-blue gunfire.

I'm sorry. That's fucking nutzoid land. Makes the Battle of Ia Drang look like a sorority pillow-fight.
Paul Bibeau over at Goblinbooks paints a similar picture in a short story sardonically titled, "Okay, Which One Of Us Is The BAD Guy With The Gun?" If you strap on a gun, your odds of getting into a gunfight just went up a thousandfold. And if you get into a gunfight, you're pretty likely to get shot – by the police, if no-one else.

So it's demonstrably better not to have armed citizens out there, but what about the "criminals don't follow laws" approach, articulated so well by Terry Pratchett in Night Watch?
Vimes wondered if [Constable Swing] sat up in bed in the middle of the night and hugged himself when he'd dreamed that one up. Confiscate all weapons, and crime would go down. It made sense. It would have worked, too, if only there had been enough coppers – say, three per citizen.

Amazingly, quite a few weapons were handed in. The flaw, though, was one that had somehow managed to escape Swing, and it was this: criminals don't obey the law. It's more or less a requirement for the job. They had no particular interest in making the streets safer for anyone except themselves. And they couldn't believe what was happening. It was like [Christmas] every day.

Some citizens took the not unreasonable view that something had gone askew if only naughty people were carrying arms...
It's called the Lawbreaker's Paradox, and as this page says:
Without exception, every law could be refuted by the lawbreaker's paradox. Laws against rape, murder, and theft, for example, are rarely followed by rapists, murderers, and thieves, but the fact that such people exist in society is the reason behind such regulations in the first place...

Not only is this conservative sound-bite irrelevant to gun reform discussion, it’s also socially untenable and dangerously naïve. If we were to accept that a law is justified only if it has a 100% compliance rate, then we could systematically dismantle every existing law until nothing remains but the state of nature.
This page also has graphs showing how gun violence went down in both Australia and Brazil after gun controls were introduced, which I haven't reproduced because go read the whole thing you lazy bum. That observed and recorded objective reality runs counter to the ammosexual's argument, but it's actually because they got something right – criminals don't obey the law. That means you know what else criminals don't do? Buy their guns legally.
The vast majority of guns in America are purchased and owned – that is, introduced into society – by white people. Each year about 500,000 guns are stolen, mostly from these same white people. And the vast majority of those guns end up in the inner city, sold cheaply or traded for legal or illegal goods and services. – Michael Moore, Stupid White Men
So those criminals you're so scared of? They got their guns from you. Gun control works because when you take guns out of the hands of the law-abiding, they stop trickling down to the criminals. In other words, it doesn't matter that criminals don't obey the law, gun control laws DO take guns away from criminals. No, it doesn't matter if you disagree. No, it's not your opinion, you're just wrong.

So let's review: having a gun on your hip won't help you defend yourself, greatly multiplies the risk to yourself and others through accidental discharge, is likely to get you shot by police who mistake you for the bad guy, is even more likely to get you shot by your fellow armed citizenry who mistake you for the bad guy, and WON'T ACTUALLY HELP YOU DEFEND YOURSELF.

"Guns for self defense/overthrowing tyranny" isn't just a very expensive solution with a lot of collateral damage, it's no solution at all. So what will protect you from a tyrannical government? What does that sacred Second Amendment the Americans are so fond of look like today? Funnily enough, we've been in touch with people who've been showing us how for the last 15 years, and they've been on the news regularly, but we don't seem to've absorbed the lesson.

Can you guess? They're urban guerrillas, the freedom fighters of the modern age. And what is the preferred instrument of the urban guerrilla? Heh, this is gonna put me on a watch list somewhere, but so be it: it's the improvised explosive device. The infamous IED.

Are you serious about your Second Amendment rights? Do you genuinely want to prepare to overthrow your government in case it turns tyrannical? Then forget three-rounds-rapid at your weekend survival camp and learn to make a pipebomb. Dismantle your automatic garage door and learn to wire it to a detonator. As the Iraqi militias found out pretty quickly, sending untrained amateurs against government troops in a stand-up fight is a good way to get them all killed, especially once the drones and attack choppers home in. Since a guerrilla's first job is to stay alive, they soon found it's much better to bury an artillery shell under a crossroads and wait for an enemy patrol.
On the very first mission I ever flew, we saw what's called "The Eye of Sauron" – a spot where a fiery tire was used to soften asphalt in order to plant an IED. The cool metal against the hot asphalt created an eye effect. A convoy was heading straight for it, but we couldn't communicate with them. They were jamming all radio frequencies in a (useless) attempt to stop any bombs from detonating. I don't think I've ever felt more helpless than I did in that moment.

Five American soldiers died when that convoy hit the IED. – Cracked, 6 Myths About Drone Warfare You Probably Believe
By 2010 the U.S. Army's own newspaper was admitting that 75% of their casualties in Afghanistan were from IEDs. See, guys? This is what works. This is how you fight tyranny, staying alive and polishing up your alibi while they blunder into your latest trap. To learn this kind of thing you have to turn to the master, Gary Breacher, who despite his occasional lapses on military history is second-to-none when it comes to urban guerrillas. Here's his walkthrough on how to get your liberation started:
The way somebody usually asks this is like, “Which would you rather have, an RPG-7 or a Carl Gustav?” or “Which is better at stopping tanks/anti-personnel/penetrating bunkers?” Reminds me a lot of standing at the bus stop watching cars go by, waiting with other kids and somebody’d say, “Which would you rather have, a BMW or a Jag?” There are a lot of answers to that one, but I’d always say, “Either one – where’s the keys?” And they’d stop talking to me because I ruined the whole game.

You see where I’m going: back to the bus stop, no BMW, no Jag. Where you, the “you” that’s actually here, actually are. Imagine you’re on that same bus stop you were on at age 13 and you suddenly need an antitank weapon. Who knows, maybe you’re having in-law problems or you want to blast a hole in a bank wall or you’ve decided to start your own guerrilla movement. Where would you get your Carl Gustav? Or your RPG-7, or anything else?

Yeah, I like that, it’s a better way to think about this stuff: You’re standing at that same bus stop and you need an antitank weapon. Whucha gonna do?

First thing I’d do is lower my expectations, away from antitank weapons, because they’re hard to get in this country, and anybody who says he’s got one is probably getting a check from Uncle Sam and has a nice little family in the Witness Protection Program. Good way to end your guerrilla movement in one step, asking around for stuff like that.

You have to start with what’s easy to get. And in this country, that’s firearms and cars. You’d have to ask yourself, why’d I need this antitank shit? What can I do with cars and guns and careful planning instead?

America’s got its own rules about weapons, just like any other place. We think it’s weird they sell RPGs at the open market in Kandahar, but they probably think it’s weird how we can buy machine guns but not AT weapons. So you start with cheap, easy to find automatic weapons like Loughner’s 31-round Glock (and excuse me before you tell me it’s not technically automatic – 31 rounds in a few seconds is auto, and the fact that you have to pull the trigger 31 times doesn’t change that fact – in fact it’s a pleasure on its own, like a stick shift).

Lots of ways to get some of those. Gun shows in wacko states like Nevada. Show up and talk some Second-Amendment shit and you’ll walk out with serious mayhem in your shopping bag and no written record at all. If that’s too conspicuous for you, try burglary. Hit a rich neighborhood in someplace like Arizona and you’d probably get a good weapon every second house.

Or just buy the damn things. Take advantage of the local availability. If the local rules say you can buy a 31-round Glock and tell the man it’s for home defense, then do it, take advantage of the customs. Just make sure you get standard-caliber weapons. You don’t want some CSI Fed digging odd slugs out of your first kills.

Now you’ve got small arms – but they don’t look so small when someone’s pointing one at you, telling you to open a door. And that’s what small arms are good for: getting people to open doors. If you really, really gotta have your antitank weapon, you can use your small arms and some trickery to get it. There are a million ways, all involving having somebody in your group become a cop, date a cop, join the service, and so on. People, not hardware, that’s what it’s about. Think of all the ways you can work some metal fatigue on the bank, or armory, you want to get into: there’s sex – sex makes people do dumb shit, so you got any sexy volunteers in your groups willing to hang out in cop- or GI bars? Money works; use those small arms to take it and a whole lot of people will suddenly open doors for you. And if all that fails, small arms work as well as a Hellfire when you’re pointing one at somebody’s forehead.

But I’d say, why do you need that little rocket tube? They’re not going to come for you in tanks, and if they do you’re through anyway. You need to stay light and hard to find.

I was arguing this online with somebody and they said something like, “I just wanted to talk antitank weapons, I wasn’t serious about starting a war.” Well, that’s the whole problem, off in dreamland. – Gary Brecher, RPG vs BMW
Bear in mind "opening doors" can be done equally well with a knife, or  – since knives are restricted in Australia as well – a hammer or a screwdriver, with the added bonus that knives, hammers and screwdrivers have much lower rates of accidental discharge. Whatever, the point is, why aren't the ammosexuals talking like this? Because this is serious terrorist shit, obviously. Which is my real point – anyone actually thinking about overthrowing the government is going to be considered a terrorist, but the people who talk longest and loudest about the Second Amendment are the first ones to squeal like little bitch at the suggestion of terrism in their neighbourhood. They're not defending their constitution, they're off in dreamland, living their revolting little fantasy of walking around with a permanent hard-on and ejaculating it into anyone who looks at them funny. Blackwater thugs, basically.

This fantasy is where the NRA and firearms industry makes its money, which brings us full circle, back to the Liberal Democratic Party. Because in the end, this is what libertarianism boils down to. Doug Muder at The Weekly Sift has a pretty devastating character assassination of the typical libertarian footsoldier:
It’s also the perfect belief system for a young male (and maybe, by now, young females too). You don’t need knowledge or experience of any specific situations, you just need to understand the One Big Idea That Solves Everything: Other than a small and appropriately humbled military and judicial establishment, government is bad. Protect life, protect property, enforce contracts – and leave everything else to the market.
Yeah, you know who else wants to leave everything to the market? The people who've already beaten it. The 1%. These people play on our fear and ignorance to keep the government out of their business, because make no mistake, libertarianism is for the rich.

The only people who could possibly benefit from relaxing the ban on semi-automatic long arms in Australia are the owners of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, and they don't mind in the slightest that the rest of us would pay for it in blood. I wouldn't try to ban the LDP from existing, but whatever policies they end up putting out are going to benefit Gina Rinehart, not the dupes who actually voted for them. Because as G.K. Chesterton warned us:
You've got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man doesn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.