The BBC Radio 4 series and podcast Moral Maze, a panel discussion program recorded live on the morality of current issues and timely topics, has been hosted since its first broadcast in 1990 by Michael Buerk, whose introductory remarks for each episode are nearly always a tour de force. Their shortened, variant version is posted on each episode's webpage, too.
The July 13, 2016 episode is "Policing Offense", when does personal opinion become morally unacceptable? I've edited Buerk's opening remarks and their published version on the webpage:
As the politics of offence, identity and rights become ever more toxic, they become equally hard to navigate, and the price of transgression is ever higher. We've had laws against "hate speech" for many years now, but are we too keen to create whole new categories of "-isms" to which we can take offence?
If morality rests on the ability to distinguish between groups and make judgments about their lifestyles, how do you distinguish between a legitimate verdict and an unjustifiable prejudice?
Why is it acceptable to say "It's good that the President is black" but not to say "It's good that the next President will be white"? Ditto women. Why is the insult "stale, male and pale" OK, but it wouldn't be if you changed gender and race?
Just when you'd learned to call the sexually ambiguous or at least transient "transgender", you're told the concept of gender is unacceptably binary and hence insulting.
There are exploding tripwires of social acceptability everywhere, with a new vocabulary of perceived offensiveness: "micro-aggression", so-called "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" to protect students from ideas they don't agree with.
It only seems to work one way. Black or brown people can't be racist about whites. Women, if that's not too binary of a description, can't be sexist about men.
Is all this a good thing, stigmatizing and policing prejudice? Is this about defending the powerless against the powerful, or are we stifling debate, making the political personal, limiting people's rights to say what they think, and making identity more important than ideas?
Where do we draw the line between policing the basic principles of equal rights and mutual respect with a capacity to judge people by what lies in their heart? When does personal opinion become morally unacceptable?
Listen to the episode (streaming) or download it as an MP3 here. It's also available on iTunes.
Along with Buerk as chair, the program features four panelists and a series of witnesses. Regular panelists as the time of this writing are Claire Fox, Giles Fraser, Kenan Malik, Anne McElvoy, Michael Portillo, Melanie Phillips, and Matthew Taylor.
Besides chairing Moral Maze, and co-hosting the ITV program Britain's Secret Treasures, Buerk is best known as the journalist whose October 23, 1984 report on the Ethiopia famine inspired Band Aide and Live Aide.
Two-hundred-forty years ago this day, the Second Continental Congress (May 10, 1775 March 1, 1781), assembled in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Statehouse (now Independence Hall), formally ratified the United States Declaration of Independence, which declared that the Thirteen Colonies of Great Britain in the North America were a new nation wholly divorced from the British Empire.
Three boys dressed as a patriotic band celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, in the 1940s. (Bert Garai/Keystone View/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
July 4, Independence Day, is an annual federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration.
The Congress, two days before, on July 2, 1776, had unanimously voted for independence. The Declaration was drafted by a committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman, but, largely at the insistence of John Adams, a delegate from Massachusetts and later second President of the United States, the large portion of the task fell to Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia and later third President of the United States. It is one of the most revered and famous political documents of the modern era. From the Declaration:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The Grand Union Flag or Continental Colors; a.k.a. Congress Flag; Cambridge Flag; First Navy Ensign; adopted January 2, 1776.
We can thank Canada for these things among others.
Not bad for only 0.4% of the world's population....
McIntosh apples (1811 by John McIntish)
Kerosene (1846 by Abraham Pineo Gesner)
Peanut butter (1884; Marcellus Gilmore Edson took US peanut flour and added sugar and the buttery/ointment-like consistency)
Basketball (1892 by Canadian James Naismith who'd moved to Springfield, Mass.)
Caulking gun (1894 by Theodore Witte)
AM radio / radiotelephony (1906 by Reginald Aubrey Fessenden: 1900, first audio transmission by radio; 1906 first two-way transatlantic radio transmission and first radio broadcast of entertainment and music)
Egg carton (1911 by Joseph Coyle)
Insulin (isolated for medical use) (1920 by Sir Frederick Banting KBE MC FRS FRSC, Nobel laureate; insulin is naturally occurring, of course, and was discovered to exist by Paul Langerhans in Berlin in 1869; the first American patient to receive Banting's insulin was Elizabeth Hughes Gossett, the daughter of the governor of New York)
snow blower (1927 by Arthur Sicard)
Wonder Bra (1939)
Paint roller (1940)
Garbage bag (disposable polyethylene) (1950 in Winnipeg, originally intended for hospital use)
Alkaline battery (1954 by Lewis Urry)
Instant replay (1955 by George Retzlaff for a CBC broadcast of "Hockey Night in Canada")
Snowmobile (modern) (1960s, open-cockpit one- or two-person form we know today; sold it as the "Ski-Doo".)
Tim Hortons (1964 by Tim Horton (Hockey Hall of Fame, 1977) et al; Canadians eat more doughnuts per capita and have more doughnut outlets per capita than any other nation; Tim Hortons was bought by Burger King in 2014, but don't crow about it, my fellow Americans; Burger King is owned by a majority-Brazilian-owned interest)
Trivial Pursuit (1979)
The Canadarm (1981 by SPAR Aerospace; the models for crane-like arms used in space, including in the US space shuttles)
BlackBerry (1999—it was great while it lasted, eh?)
Happy Saint George's Day. Three hundred forty years ago, the progenitor of my maternal ancestors in America, Richard Buffington, left Marlow, Buckinghamshire, aboard the Griffin and crossed the Atlantic. A Quaker, he settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. There's a village remnant of Buffington, PA and a Buffington Island in the Ohio River. If you're in the Big Apple today, swing by the England Day NYC free garden party (music, activities for kids, a costume contest), enjoy a pint of Old Speckled Hen USA at a participating pub, and help benefit The Queen Elizabeth II Garden and the charitable Saint George's Society of New York.
They have brought gold and spices to my King,
Incense and precious stuffs and ivory;
O holy Mother mine, what can I bring
That so my Lord may deign to look on me?
They sing a sweeter song than I can sing,
All crowned and glorified exceedingly:
I, bound on earth, weep for my trespassing,–
They sing the song of love in heaven, set free.
Then answered me my Mother, and her voice
Spake to my heart, yea answered in my heart:
'Sing, saith He to the heavens, to earth, Rejoice:
Thou also lift thy heart to Him above:
He seeks not thine, but thee such as thou art,
For lo His banner over thee is Love.'
- 20 January 1852
In his New Republic review "Creative Destruction", William Giraldi, novelist, critic, and editor for AGNI literary journal, offers an arresting overview of Scott Timberg's new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.
If you care about art and the humanities in America, brace yourself.
From the 1950s–1970s, there was for artists in America:
institutional support, low rents, a humming population in urban universities, an inviolable sense of a shared culture.... When Robert Lowell was reconfiguring American poetry in 1950s Boston, “a life of genteel poverty was still possible.”
No more. Considering a career related to the arts or humanities? Best to be a trust fund kid or marry rich.
When everyone’s an artist and no one spends money on art, art is stripped of any economic traction and serious artists can’t earn a living. Couple that with a population that overwhelmingly doesn't mind if art and artists go extinct and you have, ladies and gentlemen, what can be fairly called a crisis.
Giraldi notes that "whole throngs of onetime stable middle-class artists have been pummeled into a class where they feel the fangs of hunger."
The concept of the starving artist isn't recent. But that doesn't mean it's not a problem; that doesn't mean it's not a problem that it was less of a problem 30 or 40 years ago—before the decline of the middle class as a whole, before Reaganomics and globalization.
It's not all economics though.
There’s the long-standing and nationwide dedication to anti-intellectualism.... There’s the winner-take-all social credo that kills regard for any place other than first.... (Timberg calls it “blockbuster culture.”) There’s the [pull of] the more practical interests of science, business, and technology. There’s the widespread caricature of artists as eccentric idlers or unstrung cranks, romantic boobs, or sexed-up wastrels we might be better off without.
But, it's probably mostly economics, especially in our Internet age.
There are the Hobbesian market forces, the consumer-propelled capitalism so sweet for behemoth corporations who are its lungs and spleen but not so sweet for those artists who need to maintain their integrity outside the corporate sway.
But there remains this egregiously democratizing effect of the Internet: We believe that most online content is ours for the taking. The model of the online marketplace might be the chief obstacle preventing most middle-class writers and musicians from earning a living with their work, but it’s about time we, the users, come around to the moral side of the argument: We should purchase what we read and hear on our computers.
I used to think we might be entering a new era of art and scholarship patronage.
Given the extraordinary explosion of wealth among the top 1%, especially among the overlord class of the top 1% of the 1%, I used to harbor a feeble phantom hope that maybe America would enjoy a mini-renaissance, a flood of new funds filling the coffers artists, historians, documentarians, and artistic and cultural institutions and projects. After all, Charles and David Koch alone, who are known to give to the arts, are worth more than $100 billion. Just 10% of that is $10 billion for the arts and humanities.
Of course, I knew better. As I said, it was a feeble hope, not an expectation.
Giraldi notes that "at the hub of this mess is how we as a nation perceive our artists and stewards of culture"—specifically our reasoning that the market dictates the worth of all things. Giraldi describes this reasoning as our "bamboozled, depleted mentation", and we permit ourselves to follow it.
If you believe that the life of your mind is inseparable from the health of your life, that serious art and artists are an essential component to human nourishment, then you have an obligation, to yourself and your children and us all, to read Timberg’s book, and the minute you’re finished, to do something about the scourge it sets before you.
From "Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life," by John Michaud, The New Yorker, Culture Desk, July 18, 2014:
[D&D] ushered in a seminal change in the way games were created and enjoyed. Instead of pieces...there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board...there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace...but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons.
From "A Game as Literary Tutorial," by Ethan Gilsdorf, The New York Times, Books section, July 13, 2014.
For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives.
The playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, 44, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” said D&D “harkens back to an incredibly primitive mode of storytelling,” one that was both “immersive and interactive.” The Dungeon Master resembles “the tribal storyteller who gathers everyone around the fire to tell stories about heroes and gods and monsters,” he said. “It’s a live, communal event, where anything can happen in the moment.”
2014 is the 40th anniversary of the creation of commercial role-playing games (RPG).*
In 1974, Gary Gygax (1938–2008) and Dave Arneson (1947–2009), both influenced by tabletop wargames and fantasy fiction, created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In 1977, the Dungeons & Dragon's Basic Set was published by the company Gygax and Arneson co-founded, TSR, Inc., and Gygax next wrote the more complex three-book Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The game, under the simple title Dungeons & Dragons, is the epitome of tabletop role-playing games. Its fifth edition debuts in summer 2014 as a product of Wizards of the Coast (WofC), a Hasbro subsidiary based in Seattle.
Tabletop wargames, a major influence on Gygax and Arneson, descend from chess but are less abstract. They are strategy games that first became popular in the 1950s in the U.S. through the Avalon Hill gaming company.** Before that time, wargames existed as instructional tools for military officers--for instance Kriegsspiel (1812) used by the Prussian army--however, popular wargamming arguably descends more directly from the game H.G. Wells created in his 1913 book Little Wars. The book transforms typical improvisational play with toy soldiers into a parlour game version based on codified rules.*** (Read Little Wars at the Gutenberg Project website.)
Both tabletop wargames and RPGs use dice and probability. In wargames, dice and chance tend to stand in for battlefield or strategic conditions generally termed "friction," which are not encapsulated by the rules, e.g., weather conditions, the "fog of war" (Nebel des Krieges, a concept identified by Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), troop morale, etc.)****
In role-playing games, the dice serve the same basic function but relative to friction usually operating at the level of the individual character each player controls (known as a player character or "PC") and not a military unit, and the result of the rolls may effect the sort of narrative structure unfolding during the gaming session.
The various polyhedral dice used in many RPGs are sub-cultural icons and are designated by their number of sides, e.g., d4, d6, d8, d10, d20, etc.
Fantasy fiction was the second influence on Gygax and Arneson. It dramatically expanded as a literary genre following the tremendous popularity beginning in the 1960s of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954).***** The genre includes hundreds of unremarkable "Tol-clones" written since the 1960s as well as a few comparatively more worthwhile works. As I see it, the genre as it exists now descends from three literary categories predating Tolkien, the first two of which influenced Tolkien and the latter two of which are now generally considered to be sub-genres within fantasy fiction:
1) mythology and myth-imbued lore, primarily those of medieval Germanic peoples (e.g. the Prose Edda, penned c. 1220 by Snorri Sturluson, and Beowulf of the Nowell Codex that was penned c. 975–1025);
2) a type of tale Tolkien describes in his 1947 essay "On Fairy-Stories," which includes works by George MacDonald (e.g. The Princess and the Goblin, 1872) and William Morris (e.g. The Well at the World's End, 1896); and
3) fantastical or horror pulp fiction, such as the short stories published in the 1920s magazine Weird Tales, including works by H.P. Lovecraft (e.g. "The Call of Cthuhlu"); this category also falls into one often termed "weird fiction".
The Role-playing Games Industry After D&D
From the 1990s on, tabletop role-playing games evolved into card-based games, computer and mobile device role-playing games, and what is now the $1.4 billion massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) industry.
I spent many hours during my teenage years playing tabletop role-playing games. Some fellow Generation X gamers include Steven Colbert, Conan O'Brian, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Jon Favreau, Ewan McGreggor, Seth Greene, Patton Oswalt, Joss Whedon, Jack Black, and David Boreanaz. Vin Diesel is a major D&D fan. He's been interviewed about role-playing and cites Dungeons & Dragons as an influence on his Riddick films. (On the set of Riddick in 2004, he introduced Dame Judi Dench to D&D.) Wil Wheaton is also a fan and an enthusiast of tabletop gaming in general. He hosts the program TableTop on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. Among the Baby Boomer generation, Stephen King is one celebrity who is a D&D fan.
The second part of Jerry Whitworth's excellent article "The ’80s – Geek Edition" gives a good sense of the evolution of RPGs, in part from from the perspective of the comics art profession.
Here is a list of tabletop RPGs that I often played. I highlighted those still in production as of January 2014:
- Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP), a product of Ice Crown Enterprises, Inc., and the first role-playing game I purchased,
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a product to Fantasy Flight Games in Roseville, MN licensed by the British company Games Workshop (LSE: GAW.L),
- GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System; see the Web site), a creation of Steven Jackson Games—the Austin, Texas offices of which were raided by the Secret Service in the 1990s relative to concerns that GURPS Cyberpunk was a how-to on cyber crime—including related products GURPS Autoduel, GURPS Horror, and GURPS Old West.
- Star Frontiers,
- Twilight 2000,
- Top Secret,
- Ars Magica (I merely dabbled in this RPG; it's now in its fifth edition)
and, of course,
- Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the fifth edition of which will be released in 2014 as a product of Hasbo-owned Wizards of the Coast (WofC).
ARTICLES OF SPECIAL NOTE:
"Happy 40th Birthday to Dungeons & Dragons," The Guardian, Jan. 3, 2014.
The Great Kingdom is an upcoming documentary about the origins of D&D.
This TSR timeline offers a look at D&D's evolution over the last 40 years.
See the Salon.com article, "All I needed to know about life I learned from 'Dungeons & Dragons'"
Images: Top: "The red box," the 1983 revision of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. This product probably more than any other introduced people to tabletop RGPs. Second from top: my polyhedral dice, unused for about 20 years now!. Middle: the first edition of The Lord of the Rings. Second from bottom: a webisode of the Geek & Sundry program TableTop. Bottom: the cover of an edition of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP).
*What's a role-playing game? The short first two paragraphs devoted to the topic on Wikipedia are as good of a definition as any I've encountered.
**The Avalon Hill brand is, like the Dungeons & Dragon's brand, owned now by Wizards of the Coast (WofC). As a teenager in the 1980s, I played numerous Avalon Hill tabletop wargames, too. That quality tabletop wargames possess that chess lacks I term "military simulation;" others use the term "battlefield emulation." I find it difficult to describe. It's something like a concern for the historicity of the simulated military encounter or some history-based technical detail that not only the aesthetic of the game but also at least some of the rules attempt to impart. This degree, the depth, of military simulation varies widely from game to game.
Regarding the emergence of tabletop wargames in the 1950s, perhaps it reflects, in part, American society's heightened awareness of military matters as the U.S. moved into its second decade of almost unrelenting war or concern for war: the Second World War followed by the Cold War and the Korean conflict.
***Wells' game may reflect British society's formality and preoccupation with the British Empire, which in 1913 was arguably at its height, or the concern with geo-political contests between European empires as well as the fact that the upper and middle-class lifestyles afforded the leisure time necessary for Wells' game. As others have pointed out, it's ironic that Wells, a pacifist, created Little Wars. Perhaps him doing so points to just how pervasive the aforementioned societal preoccupation was. Wells couldn't escape it. Nonetheless, Wells notes in his book that "much better is this amiable miniature [war] than the real thing." (See Michael Rundel's "HG Wells' 'Little Wars': How An Icon Of Sci-Fi Invented Modern War Games 100 Years Ago.")
****The most original wargame I encountered, though I never had opportunity to play it, was Ogre, which is now in its sixth edition and which also exists as the Kickstarter-funded, 29-pound The Ogre Designer's Edition (photo, click to enlarge) that shipped in November 2013. The special edition's production garnered 5,512 backers on Kickstarter and $903,680 in excess funding above the stated $20,000 goal.
*****Some might include certain historical novels set in the Middle Ages in the fantasy category, too, but this is a gray area. These are the sort of historical novels in which magic is real at least in minds of some or all of the novel's characters. An example is Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy. To her characters, magic is a reality—they presume it to be an actual, operative thing in their world—and so it's described as such from a first-person point of view. However, the reader herself is not expected to suspend disbelief and accept that magic was in historical fact operative in 500s Britain and France.
Another gray area is what I call naturalistic fantasy: works that are devoid of magic or or the supernatural or downplay it, but that are set in a time and place imagined by the author and not corresponding to reality. George R.R. Martin's fiction comes close to this type of fiction. Compared to Tolkien's fantasy, for instance, Martin's is less mythic in tone, less concerned with magic, and is more informed by gritty, human interaction and the dynamics of power and politics than, say, the arguably more academic concepts of philology and mythology that inform Tolkien's works so greatly.
Depression – here I use the term in a strictly technical sense – is something very different from sadness; it’s a terrible condition which is always linked to the idea of a final conviction, issued continuously on every moment of one’s life. And here we run immediately into language problems. Far more understandable are the pains of bereavement, poverty, hunger and unemployment. Although depression itself may result from each of these elements, it’s the idea itself that seems to have something wrong. The commodification of the word ‘depressed’ has really destroyed most of its medical semantic value. - Giorgio Fontana, Berfrois.com
Image: John Constable, The Sea near Brighton, 1826. (Click to enlarge.)
On Berfrois's Facebook page, the above by Giorgio Fontana is beautifully accompanied by the Constable painting seen here.
Fontana is correct, depression is not sadness. It's not quiet, either. It's a distracting mental static that at best is mercilessly stupefying, like the sound and motion of waves that are slightly too big to be gently lulling or mesmerizing in effect. quite crashing, but they don't crash like stormy seas, either. Collectively, they are a seemingly inescapable ocean, always ominous, sometimes slightly so, sometimes dreadfully so with occasional swells and fits. A gray sea without sight of land. It is not "feeling a little blue," it is not "having a bad day," and when one is in its shore-less midst ones mood can pitch back and forth at times between desperation and lassitude.
A Victorian slum priest, campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’. Between 1885 and 1895, another slum priest, Father Dolling, transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar. ‘Who can separate the secular from the religious?’, asked Dolling. ‘Certainly the Master did not try to do so.’ He forced brothels to close, attacked army authorities for mismanagement and encouraged trade unions. The worship combined high ritual with hymns sung to homely tunes. Dolling, singing songs with servicemen, was very different from the bookish Tractarians. Why did priests like Dolling begin to connect Jesus with drains and dancing? They learned their incarnationalism and sacramentalism from a tradition which included the theologians F D Maurice, Stewart Headlam, Charles Gore and Henry Scott Holland.
Alan Wilkinson in the January 2001 online issue of Franciscan, a publican of the Anglican religious order the Society of Saint Francis, looks at the examples of Maurice, Headlam, Gore, and Holland. Read the article here.