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.

Malum in Volente

Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.

“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”

Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.” Continue reading “Malum in Volente”

Pranks

Dave and I piloted his pudgy sloop through a too-big-to-fail bank of fog. Maritime fog, for those of you fortunate enough to have only met the terrestrial sort, is particularly disorienting. Thick enough, it blots out the sun, silences all but the creaks and moans of the rigging, and brings a chill of dread to even the saltiest sailor. Maritime fog is an even blanket, compared to its clumpy terrestrial duvet cousin. Maritime fog shrouds uniformly, and when it burns off, it teases by fleeing from the top down, keeping deadly shoals obscured even as blue skies vomit their obscene giddiness onto the waves. The claustrophobia of fog provides an excellent excuse to wander the realms of memory. Dave took me on such a tour.

“Do you like pranks, Sam?”

“Pranks?” I had my feet set wide, wary of the dew-slick hull.

“Pranks. You know, like cellophane over the toilet bowl or shaving cream and a feather. Pranks.”

“I can’t say I’m a fan, Dave.”

He leaned back and planted a wooly foot against the ship’s wheel. “Nor I. But there’s this one that I can’t help but think of this morning.”

I let the boat roll under my feet, unconsciously pivoting at the waist and ankles, keeping my head fixed the way a chicken does when you hold it aloft. “Do tell.”

“When I was in, let’s see” He tapped his gray-clad foot with a dull thud against the teak. “I suppose it was sixth or seventh grade maybe.” He had tilted his head back. I could have sworn I saw more silver in his beard than when we left Roche Harbor a few scant weeks prior. “There was this kid in our class. Jeremy Something-or-other. Rhinelord or something. Hoity-toity name, and he acted like it. You know the type. Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

I did know the type, and grunted my familiarity.

“This other kid Jake Pillock just hated him.”

“That’s an interesting surname.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m improvising here. Bear with me.”

“Please continue.” I could still feel the menacing hum of the deep reverberating through the hull in the soles of my topsider loafers.

“Jake comes up with this idea to get Jeremy to eat shit.”

“What, like fall off his bicycle or something?”

“No, like literally. Take a bite of feces, chew it up, and–ideally–swallow it.” He grinned broadly.

“Seems sensible” I drawled. “What was his plan?”

“Well, here’s the thing about getting someone to eat a turd.” He paused for a second, then corrected himself. “No, not ‘a’ turd. ‘Your’ turd. Jake wanted Jeremy to eat his turd. Handcrafted, if you will.” The grin refused to leave his face even briefly. “The thing about getting someone to eat your turd, the one you yourself produced, is not as easy as just handing it to him and asking politely.”

“I would guess not.”

“His plan was fairly elaborate. He started with the research phase. He went around to all the grocery stores, bodegas, and the one candy shop in town buying all the candy bars he could lay his hands on. He opened them all for inspection, slowly eliminating candidates based on density, filling, aroma, that sort of stuff.”

“The plan was to disguise his turd as a candy bar?”

“That was the overall plan, yes.”

“I can already detect some shortcomings with this approach.”

Dave pressed on with his story, ignoring my skepticism. “After careful review, he settled on a Guatemalan confection. It was a medium density, firm, aerated, pressed chocolate fondant dotted with raisins. I’d never heard of the brand before, and I haven’t seen one since.”

“Probably wise to go with something obscure, I suppose.” I was beginning to see the internal logic of his made-up tale.

“Exactly. Every American kid knows exactly what a Milky Way looks and feels like.”

“And smells like” I added.

“Be patient. I’m getting to that part.” His eyes glinted. “The first step was getting the shape right. You can’t just mold a slab of sewer trout with your bare hands and expect perfection.”

I closed my eyes, grateful for calm waters for a change. “I accept this claim without supporting evidence.”

“He did this three-step cold molding process. First with some agar-silicone stuff, then plaster, and finally a hard resin negative mold. Jack had himself a perfect imprint of that Guatemalan candy bar. All by himself. Hell of a project for an eleven year old.” I could hear genuine admiration in Dave’s voice.

“A great day for humanity.” I was caught halfway between grudging admiration for Dave’s gross-out storytelling ability and a twinge of revulsion for where I knew the story was headed.

“The next step was to produce the appropriate raw material for the substitute bar.”

“Sounds daunting.”

“It involved weeks of Jake fine-tuning his diet. He wanted to produce a dark cake, low on moisture, few esters, no sulfur, that sort of thing. If I recall correctly, he found luck with citrus fruit and raw grains, pottage. That sort of thing. Poi.”

“That’s a curious use of the word ‘luck’ there, Dave.”

He bounced a fist off his knee as he nodded. “The trick is, if I understand the microbiology, to avoid the wrong kind of anaerobic bacteria metabolism. You need some for ordinary digestion, but there’s a whole stew of different gut bacteria in there. Feed the right ones, and you’ll get something fairly dense and not at all smelly on the other end. Trial, error, and a whole lot of patience worked wonders.”

“Again, I question your use of rhetoric, my friend.”

“Preparation was a matter of diligence. He leavened the bog loaf with twenty three raisins.”

I interrupted. “Twenty three? That’s awfully specific.”

“Apparently, it’s an important number for rituals. Hermetic Qabalah something something something. I don’t know much about it, but he made a big deal about it having to be twenty three raisins.”

“I know someone who’d find this story fascinating.”

“Yeah? I’d like to meet him.”

“Her.”

“Her then. Anyway, twenty three raisins some chocolate flavoring, and a trip through the press mold later, he needed to spray on a little shellac to give it a glossy finish and smuggle it into the wrapper.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“You’d think so, but the seams on candy bar wrappers are actually heat welded. It isn’t like a paper envelope you can just steam open and then glue shut. You need a different technique.”

The gloom of the fog was unrelenting. I peered intently into the water just off the bow. “So what was the technique?”

“Pinch and pull. Pinch and pull as slowly as you can. Hope the plastic doesn’t tear. If you’ve done it right, you can slide the real bar out and the fake one in. Then you need an adhesive that will mimic the heat welding process as much as possible. I think he settled on a quick-acting two-part epoxy. It set fast, and it was just as flexible as the plastic. Still, he didn’t want to rely on that part for the deception, so he just did the best he could and hoped to make up the difference with the con.”

“How do you mean?”

“To get someone to eat your shit, you need to be an effective salesman. You need to make a solid pitch, and you need your mark to think it’s his idea. This is basic stuff, Sam.”

“I suppose so. I’m not a con man.”

“I didn’t take you for one. Still, you’ve seen movies before, right? Diggstown, Matchstick Men, The Sting. You know, the classics. You’ve seen those, right?”

“Sure.” I remember watching movies once upon a time. I remember big cinema screens and canned music. I remember.

“So you can’t just offer your enemy a candy bar out of the blue and expect him to take a big ol’ bite, even if it appears to be in the original wrapper.”

“Okay” I was wary of where the story was headed.

“He needed to really sell it. So he came up with this ornate patter to convince Jeremy that in order to make amends for past conflicts that he’d share with him this new fancy imported candy bar that he’d found.”

“Sounds like a flimsy story.”

“It was. That was the problem. He was eleven at the time. He first overprepared by basically writing a rote speech and then compounded his error by giving it a bad pretext. That’s where it started to go wrong.”

“Started?”

“Jake delivered his speech, offered the bar to Jeremy, and seemed surprised when Jeremy didn’t take him up on his peace offering. Jake’s delivery was unnatural, forced. Despite all his practicing, he just wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off.”

“So what did he do?”

“He did what he had to do to get his enemy to eat his butt muffin. With a flourish, he opened the wrapper, took a big whiff up close to his nose, smiled satisfactorily, and offered it again to Jeremy, informing him of the raisin treats awaiting inside.”

“Did it work?” I immediately regretted allowing my curiosity rein.

“Nope. Not yet. He hesitated a little, then broke a piece off for himself.”

“Oh God, no.”

“And with a gently trembling hand.”

“No no no no nope. Stop Dave.”

“He put it in his mouth.”

“Jesus Lord Christ no.”

“And began to chew.”

“Why in the name of all that is holy are you doing this, Dave?”

“That did it. Jeremy took the remainder of the bar and also took a bite and began to chew.”

“I both hate and pity you right now, Dave.”

An irritated voice floated up from belowdecks. “Don’t be a stupid American. In East Europe everyone knows that if you want someone to eat your shit, you have to first be willing to take a bite yourself. Grow up.”

The fog finally lifted. We could see the outline of the Deception Pass bridge. Almost there.

The Intersection at the End of the World

“The most quintessentially American band to have ever existed, Sam,” Dave began as something of a preamble, “and mind you I’ve no love for the word ‘quintessential’ thanks to an alarming overuse of it, was Creedence.”

“As in Clearwater Revival? Willy and the poor boys? The dudes with an alarming aversion to commonplace meteorological phenomena? Four white dudes from California are the most quintessential American band to have existed?” We were on foot at this point, having abandoned the pickup after bouncing the drive shaft clean out of it while merrily attempting to jump a fallen log, in the style of the Duke Boys. “I can’t wait to hear you justify this one.” Continue reading “The Intersection at the End of the World”

Gilbert Keith Goes Blind

Remnants of low-slung morning clouds uttered their dying gasps under the gaze of the triumphant sun. A miraculously well-preserved pressing of an antique Garbage album allowed Shirley Manson the luxury of hauling our weary minds across the decrepit-dead years to the summers of strong bones, before the great attrition had vexed our spirit and sapped the very breath in our lungs. A great expanse presented itself starboard. The wide Strait of San Juan de Fuca exposed the lurid vulgarity of the mother ocean. A wave of nausea curdled my gut.

“You’re looking a little green there, Sam.”

“I’ll be fine, Dave. We’re almost there. Besides, the channel is visible. Wind usually picks up around here after the clouds burn off.”

“That it does. Seems you’ve sailed these waters more than I’d have reckoned.”

“You know I used to be stationed near here, right?”

“I seem to recall you mentioned it, yes. Bremerton, right?”

I peered belowdecks to see if our precious cargo caught the same wave of sickness that had assailed me. My eyes refused to adjust to the darkness quickly enough. “Bangor, actually. The submarine base is on the Hood Canal.”

“Those are the nuclear submarines, right?”

“All the submarines in the US fleets were nuclear.” The two exceptions didn’t seem noteworthy enough to mention.

“All of them? I thought some of them just had torpedoes.” He pushed his wraparound sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t think torpedoes could have nuclear warheads.”

“Huh? No, the term applies to the propulsion system. The power plant is nuclear. The alternative is diesel-electric. But in this case, I was on one of the ones with the nuclear missiles.”

Without letting his smile slip for an instant, he remarked, “so you think your submarine did this?” He swept his arm in a great arc, subsuming as much horizon as he could fit in a single gesture.

“No, they retrofitted it to take the missiles off and replaced it with special ops gear a few years after I got out.” My vision took on a muted mulberry tone. “It could have launched a SEAL team, but not an ICBM.”

“You ever feel guilty?”

“Come again?”

“You ever feel guilty about having been a part of all that? Nuclear Armageddon kind of sucks.”

I have had ample opportunity to paw through my culpability in the intervening years. I signed on in a time before anyone had given much thought to catastrophic failures of powerful institutions, powerful behavioral norms. I joined in a time when the world seemed stable, predictable. I agreed to strategic deterrence under false pretenses, though in my paltry defense, I had no good way of knowing so at the time. “You might not realize it, but you’re asking more than one question.” I soaked a bandanna and pressed it to my brow. “After my second or third patrol, I got a special battlestations assignment. I took over the Contact Evaluation Plot in the control room. For conventional combat exercises, against surface ships or other submarines, it was a busy job. I had to keep track of everything that went on in the control room, as well as track the bearing of all sonar and visual contacts. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. But that was for battlestations torpedo. Ballistic missile submarines aren’t intended to get into close range combat. Their mission is to run and hide from hostile contacts. If hostile contacts are detected, the appropriate response is to turn tail and flee. Therefore, if everything goes as intended, the only genuine battlestations the ship should have to call in wartime is battlestations missile. That’s when you spin up the gyroscopes in the missile battery and get ready to erase civilization.” I could feel my heart racing. “During battlestations missile, there are no sonar contacts. Or at least there shouldn’t be. There isn’t much for my plot to do other than note down the ship’s orders like when we turn on the hovering system.”

“The what? It turns into a hovercraft? What about the eels?”

I snickered as best as I was able. “The hovering system is what allows the boat to maintain a tight depth tolerance while stationary.” I didn’t want to bother explaining fluid flow mechanics and how the fairwater planes acted like the aquatic version of airplane wings to maintain depth while the vessel was moving. Neither did I want to explain why the ship had to be stationary and at a very precise depth in order to launch the missiles. All of this was perfectly self-explanatory, and had little to do with the moral questions at hand. “From my battlestations plot, the little console the skipper would insert his key into to end the world was roughly a roundhouse kick away. I probably could not have exactly stopped a launch, but I could have delayed one as long as it took to find a pair of pliers.” I smiled weakly. “I fancied that such a tiny rebellion should the worst come to pass might be my lone act of redemption. Multiply the tens of millions of lives by two minutes or so to figure out how many centuries of human life I could preserve with one sweep of the leg.”

“Wouldn’t they execute you for that? It sounds like treason.”

“Totally worth it.” I have to admit that I never did try to figure out what the criminal charges might be for something like that. “But at the time, I think I was a bit unreflective about the whole thing.”

“How so?”

“I was twenty years old when I got my first at-sea assignment. To me, the sweep of history, the role of the men and women who had shaped it, and the institutions that governed it were a collection of alien artifacts. I took it all for granted.”

“That makes sense. The world is as it is. Aren’t you obliged to grant that the world exists as-is?”

My legs had gone weak. I gripped the closest rail as tightly as I could. “It’s worse than that. I enlisted at seventeen. At that age, I still bought the Truman propaganda.”

“Propaganda?”

“After the Enola Gay run, that smarmy goiter had the nerve to parrot a wholly fabricated estimate of Allied casualties for a beach assault. James Byrnes pulled that 500,000 number out of his butt. He was the one who bullied 20th century America’s second most callow president into incinerating all those civilians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t usually taught in schools.” I winced as another wave of dizziness overtook me. “My point is, I thought that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was pretty good, conditional heavily upon the existence of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated willingness of at least one national sovereign to deploy them in wartime.”

“So as long as they exist, make sure no one wants to use them?”

“I was eight years old when War Games hit the theaters. It was formative.” I paused a moment. “Dr. Strangelove, too.”

“So something changed?”

“Yeah. Something changed. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15. But I never realized just how close those calls were.”

“I know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s the other one?”

“A Soviet monitoring station gave a false positive. It said the US launched 5 nukes out of Montana. The station commander figured it was a problem with the equipment, and reported it as an error. He was right, and we all got to live another quarter century in relative peace.”

“That was lucky.”

“Cuba was too. Kennedy was a drug-addled megalomaniac. He was supremely unfit to be commander-in-chief. But hey, in America, any asshole can be elected to the highest office in the land. The parties helped filter out the worst of the rubbish, but you know the problem with filters, don’t you Dave?”

“They clog, Sam.”

“They clog. They clogged with that Massachusetts goon, they got bypassed with that Ford bumpkin, and they just sort of gave up a bit there towards the end. Unserious people with no real appreciation for the horror of war got too close to the sun. And we ended up paying for it.”

“Yeah, but we chose them. So isn’t it our fault?”

“We merely chose the form of our demise. We chose the color of its neckerchief. The button wanted to be pushed from the moment it was created. The button doesn’t care what finger does the pushing. It’s our own vanity, our own urge to pretend we’re in charge of ourselves that insists it matters who does the pushing.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic for someone who walked from Florida to Alaska to find his old lady.”

I again peeked belowdecks. I again heard nothing, saw only darkness. “The fate of men is not the fate of nations. Surely you agree.”

“I do, Sam. And Sam?”

“Yes, Dave?”

“Don’t call me Shirley.”