Wakgut vs The Volcano

“Good morning, Wakgut! Mind if I join you?” Roondar’s tone was bright and cheerful, circumstances notwithstanding. “That is, do you mind if I share some of the fire’s warmth? You see, in a sense, we are already joined. By that I mean not merely by the circumstance of our travels together, but also by the kinship of shared adventures…” he trailed off, knowing that his Big friends weren’t quite as keen on gnomes’ propensity for chatter as he might like.

Wakgut nodded silently and gestured toward the vacant log across the fire.

“Thank you, Wakgut.” Roondar produced from his haversack a lump of smoked meat and a portion of bread that existed in the uncertain terminal zone between bun and loaf, though for his purposes, it served its role as breakfast more than adequately. “If Master Vasu were here and not ersatz-pseudo-entities-formed-from-organized-eddies-in-the-magical-weave-that-most-call-gods knows where in prison under suspicion of collaborating with the necromancers of Thay, I am more than confident that he would agree with my utterly canny and accurate observation that you, my dear Wakgut, are what we in the wizard community, and don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating that the term ‘community’ as commonly used applies accurately in this particular case of course, but rather a sort of loosely organized school of sorts, if you will, dedicated primarily to similar scholarly pursuits, and specializing in particular… well, specializations of the application of what you’d probably be inclined to think of as the Weave…” Roondar trailed off again right before he was about to tell his friend of his singular and remarkable character, caught by the unusual absence of irritation from his dining companion. “I say, Wakgut. Is something wrong?”

Wakgut shrugged, “Wakgut think.”

“Ah, I have caught you in a moment of introspection, have I? We gnomes are known from time to time to retreat to a place of calm so that we might have a short period alone to reflect on the day’s activities, on the many intellectual pursuits that we might be, er… pursuing…”

“Ulfe dead.”

“Ulfe? The ogre that commanded your warband, yes?” Thanks to his gnomish physiology, Roondar was capable of eating and speaking at the same time. The gnome epiglottis is bifurcated and located lower in the throat, allowing air to pass through a pair of side channels while a bolus slides along a center groove towards the esophagus. This adaptation allows for greater information transmission, with the unintended side effect of the natural polyphony so characteristic of gnome speech. Some races find it irritating. Wakgut, like most orcs, could take it or leave it.

“Ulfe strong. Rule many orc. Many orog. Rule Burdug. All she-orc.”

“Burdug was your Eye of Gruumsh, the spellcaster, yes?”

Wakgut nodded.

“I’ve often found myself wondering about orc magic. How it is your kind tap into the weave. From what I gather, some sort of sacrifice is involved. Burdug was missing an eye. Is that part of the rituals?”

Wakgut nodded again. His familiarity with religious topics was limited by the natural extent of his intellect. Even among his warband, Wakgut was notorious for vapid remarks and naught but a dim grasp of the precepts of orc lore. “Burdug kill elf, give eye. Gruumsh take eye, give magicking. Burdug magic not help kill Kat-orog, Biff-orog. Not help kill Roon-Roon.” Wakgut moped a lugubrious glance at his little friend.

“If you will forgive my impertinence, I cannot help but notice that you sound almost morose. As I said, you are quite singular among orcs. At least, that’s what I intended to say before once again I found myself verily hogtied by my own thoughts. I never realized growing up in my little village of,” here Roondar switched into the staccato, yet still somewhat sing-song tongue of the gnomes as he rattled off a name too long and Rococo to attempt to transcribe. Wakgut learned a lesson that day: never ask a gnome whence he hails. “…that the Common tongue would be so very limiting for the purposes of expressing more than one thought at once. I honestly have no idea how the humans manage. How dreadfully…” he trailed off, realizing that his dimwitted friend probably went great stretches of time without wresting with even one thought beyond perhaps, “me hungry” or “what that smell?” Such innocence, thought Roondar. Such innocence coupled with such awful brutality. How fascinating this creature, this orc.

“Wakgut not sad. Wakgut anxious.” He stirred the coals in search of the ember bed. “Ulfe dead. Ulfe keep all orc under boot. Kat-orog kill Ulfe, keep Wakgut alive. Wakgut slave for Kat-orog. Kat-orog not step on Wakgut neck yet. Kat-orog must be biding her time, wait for best chance to stomp on Wakgut neck hard. Kill Wakgut. Better die by Biff-orog sword, Treedeath arrow, Rubbalo scare magics.”

Roondar found himself flummoxed. The very notion that the honorable Ekaterina von Eblerheim would spare a foe merely to have some vile sport later on vexed him. “I…” Roondar spluttered, “I have never in my life heard such stuff and nonsense.” He put his small, gnarled hand on Wakgut’s forearm. “Kat is kind. Why, before we met you, she gave me this beautiful ermine cloak of her own make to use as a bedroll when mine was pilfered by a scoundrel in the night. She wanted to spare a white wyrmling from death before it became clear that the beast would be far more trouble alive than dead. She is as close to an innocent as I can imagine a war priestess of Zorya Utrennyaya being in the savage lands of her upbringing. She won’t hurt you, Wakgut.” Roondar tightened his grip. “Not unless you give her reason to.” He glared at the orc. “And neither will the rest of us. You have my word, Wakgut. Do you understand me?”

Wakgut’s demeanor did not change. “Wakgut understand promise. Wakgut hear many promise before. Promise from Ulfe. Promise from Burdug. Other orc. Orog. Promise cheap. Before Ulfe was Hogtooth. Hogtooth strong orog. Almost chieftain. Make many promise about make Thousand Fist rule all land near Durdegin forge. Make promise smash Red Larch. Promise take all sheeps. Pigs. Moo-cow. Hogtooth do nothing. Small raid. Chase farmer. Burn hay. Hogtooth sleep all day. Play frog-throw. Head-bonk. Him bad chief. Lazy. Ulfe not lazy. Him mean. Hit orc. Sit on orc. Take she-orc. Promise hurt Wakgut if no bring sheeps.” Wakgut smacked his lips. “Him keep that promise.” He looked at little Roondar The Mighty, Wizard of Things Unknown and Unknowable. “Can Roon-roon keep promise? Do Roon-roon even want keep promise?”

Roondar sat up straight. His honor was being questioned. Now, while it may be the case that gnomes’ natural interests seldom have much overlap with matters of honor, he did consider himself to be trustworthy, decent, even outright chivalrous (at least in most cases, the unpleasantness with Master Vasu notwithstanding). This slight would most assuredly not stand. “Roon-roon absolutely intends to keep his promises. Why would you even think otherwise? Have we shown you anything apart from the utmost kindness and care? Not only have we spared your life, which I might add given the circumstances could have very easily gone the other way, but we have allowed you total liberty about the camp complete with your full arms and armaments, including that very impressive suit of splint mail armor you are wearing. Why, if I didn’t know better, I daresay that you have been granted a wealth of privileges far beyond any reasonable expectation. I forward to you the proposition that Kat-orog,” he sharpened his pitch to emphasize the next phrase, “and the rest of us have already kept the bulk of the promise I just made you.” His tone softened as he considered the orc’s feelings. “Are… are things worse now that your friends are dead?”

“Friend?” Wakgut snorted. “All orc make fun of Wakgut. Hit with log. Throw rock. Wakgut glad they dead.” He patted Roondar on the shoulder ever so gently. “Roon-roon best friend Wakgut ever have.” Roondar noticed that the orc’s voice seemed to be hitching ever so slightly. Was Wakgut fighting back tears? “Kat-orog very nice. Even scary Xhed’r pirate no try kill Wakgut.”

“You mean Khideo?”

“That what Wakgut say: Xhed’r.” He sighed. “Wakgut wait whole life for same indifference Rubbalo show Wakgut. Better than what Wakgut get from orc, orog, ogre.”

“I don’t think Mr. Geldethamp is indifferent,” the gnome corrected, “so much as he is adept at concealing his true emotions. He is a gambler, after all.”

“Wakgut no trust anyone with power, even if things okay. Things change. People change. Promise hard to keep when no food, no fire. Promise hard to keep when stink-dwarf come from far mountain with axe to kill all orc. Never trust anyone with power of life and death, power to hurt.” Wakgut’s shoulders slumped. “This Wakgut heuristic. Wakgut hope wrong for Kat-orog. Want to trust. But big tension between hope and prune dance.”

Prune dance? the gnome wondered. Oh, prudence. “Yes, well, hope does spring eternal so they say.”

“Not for orc.”

Roondar nodded at this. Life must be pretty rough for an orc. He decided to change the subject. He found that speaking with Wakgut imposed upon him a particular discipline of thought. He was obliged to slow down and consider things one at a time. Still, the gnome mind cannot be still for long, and he reopened a conversational thread from earlier. “I’m curious, Wakgut. Why did you never fight back or run away? Why didn’t you resist?”


“Yes. Resist. Maybe find some like-minded orcs and stand up to Ulfe and his barbarism.”

“Then what?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Tell Ulfe stop hit orc. Then what?”

Roondar hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well then you’ll have justice, that’s what.”

“Get new ogre, then have justice?”

“Well sure. If Ulfe was so bad, surely the alternatives…” Roondar drifted off to imagine other actual ogres he had encountered.

“All ogre bad. Mean. Like hit orc. Like smash human, elf, stink-dwarf, gnome. Problem not with Ulfe. Problem with be orc. Problem with political economy of orc organization. System no good. Ogre symptom, not cause. How Wakgut resist system?”

“That is an excellent question. I believe the humans are fond of charters, of constitutions, of codified sets of grand rules restricting the authority of the sovereign…”

Wakgut interrupted. “No can work with orc. Orc ignore. Only rule that matter is Gruumsh rule.”

“Well, if you recall, there actually is no Gruumsh, neither are there any actual gods, but rather merely certain patterns that coalesce from what you perceive as the magical weave, and these patterns have certain traits associated with them that adherents anthropomorphize and name, which include species-specific so-called deities such as the Elf Lord Corellon Larethian or the Drow’s Lolth or your own Gruumsh, so saying they have some sort of will per se is misleading in the same sense that saying a river or the wind has a will of its own. Now I agree that from the perspective of the mortal observer, it would seem as if…” an abrupt knock on the back of the gnome’s head ended his reverie. “Hey, who did that?”

“Can it, gnome. We’re trying to sleep.”

“Right. Sorry Biff. Right.” He turned back to Wakgut. “We’ll talk more later.

The Horrible Truth About Virtue Signaling

Lloyd von Eblerhiem, last scion of House Eblerheim, rightful heir to the Stolen Fortune, vengeful servant of the One True God, and second stage initiate into the Holy Order of The Redeemer shoveled cold mud onto a a damp makeshift rampart together with his fellow captive Oswald Juventas, pirate of the Nine Coasts. The squalid primitives in custody of them insisted on erecting crude defenses at every filthy nomad camp they set. It had taken months of gestured pleading to convince the illiterate savages to take the sharpened battlement stakes with them from camp to camp to save on materials and labor. Whittling the damp deadfall in the fens along the river was wasteful by any measure.

“How long do you reckon they’ve been making these ridiculous defenses, Lloyd? How many years?”

“Not sure,” Lloyd grunted as he slung another gob of muck atop the mound. “From what I gather, the curse that blots out the sun and turns the wolves vicious has stood for the better part of five centuries.”

Oz whistled, low and long. “I’ve heard tell of whole civilizations rising and falling in less time.”

“Likewise. Kings and Emperors, great nations alike may coal or less and yet collapse all the while these stone-faced brutes blow their mud o’er the land.”

“You sure you got that quote right, Lloyd?” Oz asked.

“What quote?”

“Never mind.” Oz looked out over the cold moor, trying to see if anything stirred among the dense fog. He couldn’t see so much as a foraging raccoon. “You know, if they really wanted to slow down attackers, they’d give us our weapons back.”

“They might be worried that we would slaughter them to make our escape.” Oz moved around to the front of the rampart to install the final row of spikes.

With a disdainful wiggle of his mustache, Lloyd scoffed at the suggestion. “These rough mud-folk might lack for honor, but I am a loyal Servant of God. I would never stoop so low.”

“Yeah, yeah, Lloyd. I know, man. You’ve got your honor. You don’t need to virtue signal to me: it’s them that don’t understand you and your vows.”

Lloyd stuck the wooden blade of his shovel into the peaty mud. “What is ‘virtue signaling’, Oz?”

“You’ve never heard of virtue signaling? It’s when someone says something to let others around you know that you’re one of the good guys. You know, posturing.”

“If you wish to accuse me of posturing, Oz, simply accuse me of posturing. There’s no need to bastardize a perfectly good concept from the discipline of game theory.”

Oz froze in place to gawp at Lloyd, cypress stake halfway into the mud. “You and I have been prisoners of these tribesmen for the better part of a year now. This is the first I’ve ever heard you talk of academic theory.”

“Sir Selten taught courses on game theory. He insisted that in our roles as advisers to court, we needed to have a proper appreciation for the theoretical under paintings of intrigue, of coalition politics, of practical theories of war. That sort of stuff.”

“Did you just say ‘under paintings’?”

“Yes, the paintings that go under the text in the books.” Lloyd cocked his head at the irrelevant question. “The thing about signaling is that it has to be deliberate, targeted, and most importantly, expensive.”

“Go on.” Oz had turned his back on the ghastly fog to pay closer attention to Lloyd.

“Tell me, Oz: do you know what a shibboleth is?”

“I’ve heard the word, but now that you ask, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly what it means.”

“Commerce requires trust, does it not, Oz?”

Being a pirate, Oz had a keen interest in matters of trade. After all, without flourishing shipping traffic, he would be obliged to take to the sea in search of fish. “Trust, aye. Reciprocity too I’d wager.”

“So how do you get trust? Where does it come from?”

Oz thought on this for a moment as he drove the rampart spikes into the mud. “Repeat business, I suppose. Reputation.”

“Reputation works well when you know the players in the marketplace. You’re a sailor. You know anyone when you set foot in a new port?”

“You mean apart from my crew?” Oz grinned. “No, I reckon not.”

“So you can maybe ask around about who to trust for your next contract, but how do you know you can trust those people? It’s a nested dilemma, agreed?”

“Agreed, but you eventually have to trust someone, right? A little diligence can go a long way.”

Lloyd nodded, “that’s certainly true. Diligence in this case is extremely valuable, not just for the individual merchant, but for the integrity of the traders as a group, yes?”

“Yes. So what?”

“So what is that it’s valuable enough for specialists to do your diligence for you.”

Oz raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How does that work?”

“The trouble is that it’s very tempting to renege on one-time contracts, but far less tempting for repeat business. So if there were some way to mimic the long-term incentive structure for spot markets, you wouldn’t have to spend all that time and effort finding out who’ll stab you in the back while you’re not looking.”

The idea was intriguing, Oz admitted to himself. “I’m listening.”

“The temple provided proxy reputation services.”

“The temple? What temple?”

“The Hebrew temple. Temple elders would blacklist unscrupulous traders…” Lloyd paused for a moment to recall the old lessons, “or maybe they whitelisted the good ones, I forget. Either way, there was an implicit threat that if you cheated other Hebrews, things would go poorly for you.”

“That’s it? Seems pretty easy to lie your way around.”

Lloyd shrugged. “You might be right, but add to that other pressures, like an appreciation for group identity, stories of escaping persecution together, proper high holidays, and a bunch of other little things that cemented group identity, and you’ve got a pretty good system for keeping most potential defectors in line. Besides,” Lloyd added, “the point is more to prevent outsiders from cheating than insiders.”

“It is?”

“Think about it: you’ve got a ready-made stable of potentially gullible rubes ready to trust anyone who they think is one of their own. Disguise yourself as one of them, and make off with their cargo at virtually no risk. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?”

“Sure, but it sounds just as good if you’re one of them than if you aren’t.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of a group identity, Oz.” He jerked a thumb towards their captors. “You think these savages want to eat turtle heads and drink frog water? They do it because the rest of them do it. They do it because that what their people do. Their system would collapse otherwise.” Lloyd smoothed the earth down in the space behind the rampart. “People are fond of their systems.”

“So that’s it? ‘People are fond of their systems’ sounds like what someone would say if they’ve never met a pirate.”

“Aw, come on. Pirates have their systems too. Just because you’ve never thought about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, Oz.”

Oz shrugged again. “Maybe you’re right. But I thought you were going to tell me what a shibboleth is.”

“Right! Yes, thank you. The shibboleth was the word the Hebrew traders would speak to each other to check for impostors. Haircuts and clothes can be easily imitated, but the native Hebrew accent was nearly impossible to replicate for someone who hadn’t learned the tongue from the cradle. It was the keys tone holding the group identities distinct.”

Oz decided then and there that Lloyd’s penchant for Mondegreens provided more entertainment than confusion, so he promised himself that he’d stop mentioning them. “Okay, so they had a good way to check strangers for group membership, and this allowed the whole arrangement to work. What of it?”

“Well, the shibboleth was the signal: it was hard to reproduce, extremely valuable, and quite costly.”

“Costly? It’s just a word.”

“Yes, but to utter it properly, you have to be raised speaking Hebrew. You must forgo all other options. You have to actually be a member of the tribe. That’s what cost is, after all: the value of the next most attractive opportunity.”

“Sounds pretty subjective, Lloyd.”

“Cost and choice are always subjective, Oz.”

“So what you said about being a loyal servant of God…”

“Mere platitude. Any fool can utter platitudes. Platitudes do not a signal make. Visible commitment to the cause of HOLY RETRIBUTION is a signal. My Divine Sense would be a signal of His Favor, but only if you can see the way my eyes light up when I beg Providence.”

“Your eyes light up, Lloyd?”

“They can. You haven’t seen me do that before?” Lloyd activated his Divine Sense, opening himself up to witnessing unseen threats in the distance. “See? Silvery-pearlescent…” He scowled at something in the distance. “Alert the Indo. There’s something in the fog.” He gripped his shovel as if it were a longsword and looked around for a makeshift shield.

Oz sprinted towards the girl he had secretly taken a bit of a fancy to.

Moments later, the werewolves were upon them.

Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative

In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.

The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.

Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.

I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.

Time has not been kind to that vision.

Continue reading “Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative”

Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 


Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

In Praise of Partiality in Science

We all grow up with an image of science as a pillar of truth and nothing but truth. This ideal is so deeply embedded in us, that the very idea that scientists should take responsibility for the normative aspects of their work is anathema. Of all the things I have written here on Sweet Talk, my series on this subject provoked the most ferocious responses by far.

But science itself is far more than just truth. Elizabeth Anderson thoroughly dismantles the notion that it is. Our very ability to discern the whole truth, according to her, depends heavily on what we would call normative values, rather than value-neutral considerations. The whole truth is not a representation of “every fact about the phenomenon being studied.” If it were, it would “end up burying the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial detail.”

Theoretical inquiry does not just seek any random truth. It seeks answers to questions. What counts as a significant truth is any truth that bears on the answer to the question being posed. The whole truth consists of all the truths that bear on the answer, or, more feasibly, it consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently.

Anderson’s whole truth can only be determined by honing in on what is significant, an inherently value-laden concept. And that significance is determined by the questions we ask, which are based on our interests. Continue reading “In Praise of Partiality in Science”

Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

Continue reading “Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy”