Tough Travelling: Assassins

Thought I’d have another (typically belated) go at Tough Travelling. This week, we’re dealing with Assassins:

Assassins are ubiquitous throughout fantasyland. Sharp-eyed readers (or even dull-eyed ones) will notice that their hooded forms often adorn book covers, and that they frequently appear – rather improbably – not to mind being the sole focus of our attention. Whether they’re spotlight hogs or camera-shy and brooding, most assassins will have trained for years and are very, VERY good at their job (i.e. killing people for money).

 

  1. Artemis Entreri (The Crystal Shard (1988), et seq.; R.A. Salvatore)

Is there anything particularly special about Entreri? Not really. I suspect that in today’s dagger-saturated fantasy climate, nobody would even notice him. But way back in 1988, Artemis Entreri was the world’s premier fantasy assassin, the dark mirror to Forgotten Realms mascot Drizzt Do’Urden. He may not have been the genre’s first assassin – the Belgariad, for instance, gives one of its protagonists an assassin nemesis, and I’m sure there were more than a few in the pulps – but until the rise of grimdark he was probably its most famous, and none of those knife-posing hoody-wearers on modern covers would have been given their big break if not for the path blazed, methodicaly and violently, by Artemis Entreri.

Entreri was a human man from the rough streets of a big city, who murdered his way up from child abuse victim to paid henchman to freelance contractor to legend (and beyond). Entreri possessed a powerful sort of… anti-charisma. He was so boring it was hard not to respect him. Like many fictional killers, he rarely murdered innocent people for no good reason unless someone were paying him – but in his case this was not so much the result of a code of honour as of a code of efficiency. Entreri built himself into a remorseless living weapon, and prided himself, in a bland and apathetical way, on his capabilities: the only distraction from his job, ironically, was his desire to be the best at it. This in turn lead to a long-term fixation on Drizzt, the only fighter Entreri had found who could match him. Entreri’s professionalism, perfectionism, and wounded pessimism made him peculiarly sympathetic… for a pathologically uncaring mass murderer.

A recurring and rather under-written villain throughout the Drizzt novels, Entreri finally got his big break ten years into the sequence in The Silent Blade, the main plot of which sees an older, marginally slower Entreri return to the city of his youth to try to find a new place in it; perhaps the best that can be said of the character is that he made the book readable long after Salvatore’s tropes had otherwise grown wearisome.

Entreri appears in at least 18 novels, a number of short stories, and a handful of computer games, and is last I heard, still going strong, making him perhaps the genre’s most prolific and longlived hired killer…

 

  1. Inigo Skimmer (The Fifth Elephant (1999); Terry Pratchett)

Discworld is overflowing with assassins. One, Pteppic, gets his own novel. Another, Mr Teatime, gets to be the chief villain of another. Dr Cruces and Lord Downey play recurring villainous and semi-villainous roles as politicians as well as killers. One of the setting’s highest-billed fixtures, Lord Vetinari himself, is a graduate of the Assassin’s Guild (a cross between an English public school and a psychopath’s convention). Countless other assassins, and more particularly Assassins, litter the pages of the cycle, even providing their own themed tie-in diary; the most ‘Boba Fett’ of them may be young Jocasta Wiggs (who, when she grows up, will murder a vampire – at least, said vampire has previously been killed by four previous generations of her family, and everyone agrees it only seems sporting to let her have a go at maintaining the family tradition); Wiggs, meanwhile, is just one student of a more recondite character, House Mistress Miss Alice Band, stealth archaeologist and exploding-bustle-wearer…

My pick this time, however, is Inigo Skimmer. Skimmer is unusual for an Assassin, in that he’s a working-class kid, a scholarship boy who made up for anything he lacked in manners or fine taste or black silk with, instead, a talent for remorseless killing. He is not, however, a full-time freelance murderer: after graduating, he instead found employment as a “clerk” for Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruler. An unassuming, bald man, who finishes his sentences with a mumbled “mhm-mph” and wears a bowler hat, Skimmer attracts little attention, which is useful in his never-fully-defined line of work. This does not, however, prevent him from extremely efficient violence – he combines the refined training of the Assassin’s Guild with the cunning and resourcefulness of his origins on the streets, with a razor blade sewn into his hat and daggers in the soles of his shoes. Like Entreri, Skimmer possesses a powerful anti-charisma, in addition to a keen intellect and possibly a sense of humour; he’s also, a little ambiguously, one of the good guys.

 

  1. Chade Fallstar (Assassin’s Apprentice (1995), et seq.; Robin Hobb)

Most assassins in the fantasy genre are dashing, strong young men – some are charismatic anti-heroes, some are purposefully cold and clinically effective, and some, like the hero of Assassin’s Apprentice and the following volumes, are just troubled boys with few good options in life.

And then there’s Chade – the eponymous apprentice-taking assassin of the novel. Chade is not a young man, although he’s younger than he seems – Hobb brilliantly evokes the way in which children come late to the story and are forced to reassess their parents as they age themselves. Solitary, slow, disfigured by alchemical errors, Chade seems ancient to the young Fitz, but can’t be much older than Fitz himself is in later books. In many ways, the entire cycle of books could perhaps have been told from Chade’s point of view – at times a hero, at times a ghost, at times the brother of a king, at times a rebel, at times a murderer, at times a politician. Chade, ‘the old spider’, takes on the Walsingham role behind the throne of the Six Duchies, and his life twists and alters to serve the needs of the kingdom – a genuine selflessness that masks, and perhaps is driven by, a colossal egotism that in turn casts an ironic reflection of our protagonist’s own issues. At times a beloved father figure, at times perhaps a manipulative, exploitative Fagin, Chade is both the embodiment of the establishment and a dangerous wildcard – a disconcerting and yet lovable figure, constantly underestimated, creeping through the walls from peephole to peephole. And he, and Hobb, know that in reality an assassin need not be some ninja warrior – a knife and the element of surprise are all a man needs to kill. Or, better yet, a diverse supply of poison and a safe, unimpeachable distance.

 

 

  1. Oasis (Sluggy Freelance (1997-); Pete Abrams)

Sluggy Freelance is heading rapidly for its 20th anniversary as a near-daily webcomic. That’s not just a sign of a succesful and dedicated cartoonist, it’s also central to the nature of Sluggy’s peculiar (and admittedly inconsistent) brilliance, because Abrams is an author who, through a combination of planning and opportunism, is perfectly happy, to give a recent example, taking a plot twist that suddenly makes a throwaway gag from nearly two decades ago mean something totally different. It’s part of the intense tonal and structural whiplash that is both one of the comic’s most frequent weaknesses and one of its greatest strengths. Not only do absurdities, slapstick and terrible puns live side by side with convoluted plotting and complex and emotive character development, at times they are the vehicle for those deeper elements. It’s consistently hard to tell on any given occasion whether an event or character is light comic relief or the foundation for decades of examination.

So when, back in 1999 (chapter 15, “The Isle of Dr. Steve”, collected in Book 4, Game Called on Account of Naked Chick), a badly-drawn Torg, lost in the woods, is rescued from being beaten up by his psychotic pet talking rabbit (OK, it sounds silly when you say it out loud) when the pair fall in a lake next to the eponymous naked woman, it probably seemed like another silly week-long adventure, of the sort the comic was prone to at that time. After all, the set-up for the story was a brief parody of The Blair Witch Project, so nothing much could be expected, right?

Well, the naked woman (with bizarre hair) was Oasis, and the rest is (admittedly obscure) history. Oasis’ introductory (and at the time seemingly final) story is a pretty good yarn in its own right – a twisty, confusing tale of the sinister Dr. Steve and his daughter/friend/student/victim/robot, Oasis, both of whom consistently and inconsistently lie to and manipulate the protagonists, who have wandered unwittingly into a deadly but obscure game between two people – or have they?

But Oasis’ story didn’t stop there – she goes on to make repeated appearances throughout the years, a frustratingly mysterious but clearly central part of the core plot, with layers of foreshadowing carefully put in place years or even decades before their payoffs. On the surface, of course, this importance seems out of all proportion to the sophistication of the character: Oasis, at least as we generally see her, is not a deep thinker, and remains deceptively close to the adolescent male fantasy suggested by her naked, lacustrine first appearance. She’s (possibly) a beautiful gymnast-turned-assassin, who wears implausibly little clothing much of the time, and spends years infatuated with a main character. This is, of course, intentionally misleading: when Torg initially responds to her nudity with gawping and adoration, she replies by trying to drown him. The very next page reveals her stash of cute woodland animals killed with her bare hands, and for most of the following two decades she is a ruthless antagonist who inflicts considerable suffering on the central cast.

But the genius of her character is that… she’s not a character. For whatever reason – madness, brainwashing, programming, I won’t go into too many spoilers – Oasis is effectively not an agent, but a tool, not only lacking self-control but lacking even a stable personality. If she ever was a real person, her introduction story is also her swansong – or perhaps only an imitation of one. To make such a central character an agencyless cipher is a bold but ultimately brilliant move, because it dilutes our fear of and enmity toward her with an equal and opposite current of pity: the worse she is and the worse the things she does, the more we pity her, trapped (perhaps) in a hell not (we assume) of her own making. That would alone make her memorable, but gradually, over the years, in glimpses here and there, often only tangentially connected to the main cast, we see her grow, not perhaps by overcoming her lack of agency, but at least by gaining an increasingly deep understanding of her own lack of agency (or has she?), and what seemed at times like a cartoon threat has become one of the most moving and tragic of the comic’s characters. Not bad for someone who at any moment might well murder any of the protagonists.

Oasis is, quite intentionally, a walking cliché – but she’s a cliché treated seriously enough (in the long term) to seriously examine its implications. Which is why she’s at least the second-most-memorable mysterious beautiful assassin woman in the webcomic. [but we’ll save Kusari for another day]

 

 

 

  1. Arakasi (Daughter of the Empire (1987), et seq.; Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts)

Oasis is a cipher by (probably) circumstance; Arakasi, on the other hand, is a cipher by something perversely approaching choice. The spymaster to (eventually) the Acoma is, like Chade, primarily a manipulator and a politician, but he is also not above getting his blade wet with the blood of enemies. Or allies. Or probably himself.

The Empire trilogy is set in an exotically ‘oriental’ world loosely inspired (I gather) by mediaeval Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, and that setting allows the authors to really cut loose with tropes of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, even beyond what is normal for the genre. The books are filled with pious suicides, mortifying shame, fidelity unto death, and the occasional perfectly respectable human sacrifice. And at the edges of all that – both furthering and implicitly rebelling against, undermining and relying upon this all-consuming code of honour – are the trilogy’s assassins, the merciless Tongs, and specifically the Hamoi Tong and their incongruously obese master, the Obajan. Throughout the books, the Tong kill by blade, by cord, by subtle poison, and occasionally by wave after wave of fanatical canon fodder. If their devotion to their Tong – which may ultimately by underwritten by cash but which (like every institution in this world) seems not far from a religion or an extended family – may at times stretch the credulence of the modern Western reader, the assassins are at least better than par in the believability of their ruthlessness; unlike many fantasy assassins, these are not nice, ultimately fair and merciful people. They kill women, children and the elderly – whoever they’re paid to kill. In a way, they’re the ultimate assassins of the genre.

Arakasi isn’t one of them. Instead, he’s a disgraced ‘grey warrior’, a servant of a destroyed House who has failed to commit suicide, but who is treated as an outcast by all. Until he meets Mara, our heroine, who decides the man may have something to offer a new employer – and from then on, Arakasi becomes the central figure of Mara’s continued improbable survival, not only a respected political advisory but also the shadowy master of an immense spy network. It’s a network he built himself, and one he cares for like a devoted parent. But you don’t get to run a nationwide spy network by being gentle – Arakasi is completely anonymous to the outside world, and will dutifully murder any of his most trusted agents to keep it that way if the need arises. That because everything Arakasi does is dutiful: the man has, essentially, no visible character traits beyond loyalty and paranoia, in some combination of societal honour-obsession and personal sociopathy. It’s his greatest virtue: being nobody, he can be anybody, and he spends much of the trilogy immersed in an array of perfect disguises inhabited with limitless dedication. So what if he needs to spend a day or two raking sand for a thirty-second meeting? It’s not like anything else in life might matter.

He employs exactly the same patient approach to cold-blooded murder, relying on intelligence and time in place of mere physical prowess; his careful and courageous Bond-esque infiltration scene in the third book is one of the highlights of the trilogy.

 

Øynduyska – some examples (1)

I’ve finished for now with Øynduyska, at least in the sense of posting a sketch on this blog. But I’m still translating some things and fiddling with some details, so I thought I’d share four very small (one line) translations, with explanations.

Yes, a couple of things are slightly different from in the foregoing discussion, and represent minor changes I’ve made since then. [or mistakes, of course…]

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Øynduyska – VI (Verb Morphology)

The continuing adventures of Øynduyska!

 

VERBS

Overview
Øynduyska’s verbs may be divided into a number of distinct classes, which in turn may be grouped into two large categories: strong and weak. There are in addition a small number of irregular verbs, and the modal verbs, which are defective.

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Øynduyska – II (Phonology/Orthography 1)

The continuing adventures of  Øynduyska. As always, feedback welcome!

 

PHONOLOGY and ORTHOGRAPHY
Fonologi ay Ortografi

Consonants
Consonanter

  Stops Affricates Fricatives Approximants Taps Nasals
Bilabial /p/ p

/b/ b

        /m/ m
Labiodental     /f/ f fh

/v/ v bh f

     
Dental     /þ/ th t

/ð/ ð d

     
Alveolar /t/ t

/d/ d

  /s/ s

/z/ s

/l/ l /ɹ/ r /n/ n
Anterior Post-Alveolar   /tɕ/ tch /ʃ/ sh s
/ʒ/ s
     
Posterior Post-Alveolar     /ɕ/ kj      
Palatal       /j/ y j    
Velar /k/ c k

/g/ g

  /x/ ch /w/ w    
Glottal     /h/ h      

 

The consonant inventory is largely unremarkable and self-explanatory, although it is worth noting that the labiodental fricatives often pronounced as labial fricatives when adjacent to rounded vowels. The most unusual phonemes are those listed here as “dental fricatives”, which may vary between interdental fricatives and dental stops – in general, they are fricatives intervocalically, post-nasally and finally, but they are often stops initially or following another consonant. The stop realisation is particularly common for the voiceless phoneme.

Regarding the orthography, there are a number of ambiguities; in particular, the grapheme s may stand for any of four fricatives: while generally indicating an alveolar, it indicates a postalveolar following u, w, eo, io, or sometimes (but not always) following ø, y or a; it indicates a voiced fricative when initial, when intervocalic, or when following a nasal, or when preceding a voiced consonant, but otherwise indicates a voiceless consonant. The voiced and voiceless alveolar fricatives are not otherwise distinguished in writing, though the distinction is only very rarely distinctive. The same is true of the postalveolar, except that the voiceless postalveolar may also be indicated by means of the digraph sh. So:

sitta /zɪtə/ “to sit”
gressa /gresə/ “to eat lightly; to graze”
más /mas/ “moss”
huss /hʊʃ/ “house”
fleos /fleʃ/ “fleece; rind; mould”
yøsa /jøːʒə/ “to vomit”
másh /maʃ/ “clapshot; colcannon”
shanka /ʃæŋkə/ “leg”

 

The “dental fricatives” may be indicated by th and ð, but may also be indicated simply by t and d when preceding a u, w, y, o or ó, or when morpheme-final following the same letters – or, sometimes but not always, following a, ø or y. Thus:

cweða /kweːðə/ “to declare”
beseod ech /bəzeɞð ex/ “I boil (sth.)”
bątha /bɑːþə/ “to beat”
besleot ech /bəzleɞþ ex/ “I close (sth.)”
duylom /ðʊɪlɞm/ “creator”

 

The velar stop /k/ may be indicated with either c or k; c is found as the first element of clusters within a root, and, within a morpheme, before any vowels other than i, í, or e; k is found morpheme-finally, as the final element of clusters, and before the vowels i, í and e. So:

cweða /kweːðə/ “to declare”
cnafa /knæːvə/ “child; boy; youth”
cutta /kʊtə/ “bodice; jacket”
kerm /kɛrəm/ “wail; shriek; lament”
yðank /ɪðænk/ “thought”
busk /bʊʃk/ “bush”

 

Regarding the labiodentals: in initial or final position, or adjacent to a voiceless stop or a fricative, f generally indicates /f/, but in intervocalic position f indicates /v/. Morpheme-final /v/ is typically shown by bh, while initial /v/ is shown by v; v is also found in many loanwords. Intervocalic /f/ may be shown by vh. Thus:

foto /foːtoː/ “photograph”
far? /fær/ “where?”
hröf /hrəf/ “stomach; fortitude”
vilsfin /vɪlsfɪn/ “wild boar”
wǫlf /wʌlf/ “wolf”
wylfer /wylvər/ “wolves”
cnafa /knæːvə/ “child; boy; youth”
cøbh /kev/ “jaw”
cøbhs /køːvz/ “of the jaw”
advocat /ædvɞkət/ “attorney”
sevha /seːfa/ “to see”

 

The palatal glide /j/ is shown with y when morpheme-initial or following a vowel, but with j when following a consonant within a morpheme. So:

yøsa /jøːʒə/ “to vomit”
bjóding /bjɔːðəŋg/ “social invitation”

 

A further complication of orthography is the practice of writing orthographic ‘geminates’ to indicate preceding short vowels. Sometimes, the ‘geminate’ is not merely a duplication of the letter or grapheme. In any case, other than across morpheme boundaries in compounds, ‘geminates’ do not indicate a phonetic doubling of the consonant, but merely a change in the preceding vowel.

The fricative geminates ff and ss only ever indicate voiceles consonants; voiced /v/ may be written in geminate form as bhf, but there is no geminate form available for /z/. The geminate form of ð is ðh.

The geminate form of c/k is written as ck, when morpheme-internal, but as kk when the gemination results from the addition of a suffix. The geminate form of kj is kkj.

The geminate forms of th and ch are tth and cch.

The polygraphs sh and tch are regarded as automatically ‘geminate’, in the sense of shortening preceding vowels.

In this way:

máshr /maʃr/ “colcannons”
flycker /flʏkər/ “flocks; groups”
ąka /ɑːkə/ “to make bigger”
akkar /ækar/ “increaser”
mikkjel /mɪɕəl/ “big”
yøbha /yøːvə/ “to give”
yøbhfað wi /yevað wi/ “we give”

 

Next Up: Phonology and Orthography 2: Vowels!
Nu ta vylga: Fonologi ay Ortografi 2: Vocala

Øynduyska – I (intro/context)

It’s been a while since I’ve put up any conlanging here (I did do a huge tranche of stuff on Rawàng Ata but never got around to posting most of it). So, here, enjoy (if you can!) a brief sketch of a Germanic language from the North Atlantic. I’ll post it in sections to buoy your suspense (and because I haven’t finished it yet – still got a few more syntax sections to wade through). Any questions or comments gratefully received!

I’ll start with a brief explanation of what the language is…

INTRODUCTION and CONTEXT
VOORCANT ay SAMMENHANG

Internal
Intern

Øynduyska is a minor Germanic language spoken by somewhat under 200,000 people on the Wentharian Islands (located northwest of Ireland and southwest of Iceland and the Faroes), by small numbers of expatriates around the world (with particular concentrations in the UK, US, Canada, Norway, and Argentina; there is a very small multigenerational community surviving in western Canada, while other speakers abroad are mostly first- or second-generation immigrants). There are also several tens of thousands of second-language speakers in the Islands.

Øynduyska belongs to the Northwest Germanic subfamily. Early philologists generally assumed it to be an Ingvaeonic, or even specifically Anglo-Frisian language, as it shares some prominent features with English and Frisian. However, modern linguists believe that these are parallel evolutions, probably suggesting extensive early contact and sprachbund effects; it is not even clear whether Øynduyska can accurately be called a West Germanic language, thanks to its delayed rhotacisation (a feature shared with North Germanic but not with West Germanic). However, as the language is in other regards close to West Germanic, and shares few early developments with North Germanic, the general tendency appears to be to overlook this difference and to consider it a somewhat ‘anomalous’ West Germanic language.

Considerable perplexity surrounds the early history of the language, and in particular how the language could have arrived in such a remote location. It is possible that the ancestors of the modern Øynduyar (English: ‘Onthoyers’ or ‘Wenthers’) may have participated in the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, crossed the island rapidly, and then spread to the west via the Hebrides. It seems more likely, however, that they reached their current location either following a coastal path along the east coast of Britain, and thence via the Hebrides, or else following a coastal path along the west coast of Norway, prior to Norse settlement there, and then travelling to the west via the Faroes. The latter suggestion has always been more politically popular in the Islands, but the former would seem more probable, given the shorter distances required to be travelled, and the absence of any clear connexion between the Øynduyar and the Faroes.

In any event, the Islands were subsequently subjugated under Norse (and later variously Danish and Norwegian) rule, from the 9th century through to the 20th, and this contact has had a considerable effect on the superficial appearance of the language, and a more subtle influence upon other aspects of the tongue.

External
Ecstern

In reality, of course, there is no Øynduyska, nor any Wentharian Islands (or at least, in our world there is only one such island, and it’s very, very small).

I’ve toyed on and off, over the years, with some sort of a sister or cousin to English, retaining a more archaic feel – a common enough conceit. Those ideas never really went anywhere, however, until I saw and borrowed the idea of placing some more dry land on our Rockall Plateau. What would the inhabitants of such islands speak? Well, realistically they’d speak a sister to Icelandic and to Faroese, but that didn’t interest me much, so instead… Øynduyska. Not actually a descendent of Old English, but similarities in vocabulary and (over-enthusiastic!) participation in the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law hopefully make it feel strangely familiar to English speakers. It retains some features suggestive of Old English – it has not undergone Modern English’s Great Vowel Shift, for instance, and continues to use the distinctive ‘eo’ digraph lost in Modern English – while following Modern English in some other respects (it has eliminated or reduced many of its unstressed vowels, for instance, and dramatically simplified its morphology). At the same time, for both aesthetic and historical reasons, I wanted to give the language a slightly ‘Northern’ feel, a touch of cold crispness that seemed to suit both its windswept locale and its long association with the Nordic nations. This is most obvious in the orthography, with its inclusion of such letters as ø and ð, and in a number of Norse loanwords.

Next Up: Phonology and Orthography!
Nu ta vylga: Fonologi ay Ortografi!

The Skylark of Space, by E.E. (“Doc”) Smith

It’s Vintage Science Fiction Month [well it was, back when I started this review…] And what could be more vintage than The Skylark of Space?

This is it. This is novel Asimov called the first classic of science fiction; that Pohl ranked as the single most influential SF novel not by Wells or Verne. First written – or at least begun – almost exactly a century ago, how does The First Space Opera hold up today?

…well, I’m honestly not entirely sure how to answer that question.

I could probably just leave the review at that picture…

But first things first. What is it?

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Political Idiocies

Although I’m fairly opinionated in terms of politics, and try to keep informed on what’s going on, I have to say it’s not the evil that gets to me most.

No, it’s the sheer stupidity.

Evil – intentional or accidental – is an inevitability in politics. There are a lot of people in the world, many of them with quite odd beliefs and priorities, and we won’t always get our own way. They try to make things one way, we try to make things another. You can account for evil. In some cases, you can even respect it – most of these people are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, even if their views on how to do so are utterly wrongheaded.

But what really, instinctively, viscerally irritates me about politics is idiocy. Ineptitude. The very least we should be able to expect from our enemies – or friends – is basic competency!

Take, for example, Trump’s package of immigration restrictions. Now, I don’t intend to get into an argument about whether these are morally good or bad, or even their strategic value in the long term. Those are contentious questions. But what I think we should all be able to agree on is that whatever the merits of the theory, their implementation has been, politically speaking, monumentally moronic.

Let’s look at it this way: imagine you want to swing public opinion against a particular government policy. What ought you to do? Here’s a few suggestions…

  • make the debate about real, specific people, with real faces and life stories. Far away people about whom we know little are hard to empathise and easy to ignore. Names, faces, stories, individuals are what you need the argument to be about if you want to get people on your side. And what has Trump done? He’s put specific individuals into detention on American soil, while not isolating them from journalists and lawyers, creating a ready-made cast of characters for the public to feel sorry for;
  • make the debate about cruelty and unfairness. People might sigh over policies that are harsh or inhumane, but cruelty and unfairness are what get them pissed off. You can sell “tough but fair”, but it’s really hard to sell “tough and unfair”. And what does Trump do? He detains men who have risked their lives collaborating with the US armed forces. Everyone knows that that’s unfair. He detains elderly grandmothers, and he detains five-year-old children, separating them from their parents. Everyone knows that that’s unnecessarily cruel. And he has people asked about whether they personally support Trump as a precondition for entry into the country, and nobody can deny that that’s ridiculously unfair;
  • make people confused and afraid by stressing any vagueness or confusion. When it’s clearcut and simple, people are glad they weren’t affected personally and move on – but when nobody really knows what’s going on exactly, they get worried and distressed. And what does Trump do? He rolls out his policy without any guidance to people on the ground and contradictory statements by senior officials, so that nobody really knows what’s going on. Why is one person let free, while another is detained, and a third is detained without access to lawyers? Are dual-nationality travellers affected, for instance? Yes and no, appears to be the answer;
  • create specific times and places that can act as focuses for protest; when discontent, like sparks from a fire, is spread out and abstract, it’s easy to overlook it, easy to let it die away in the cold and the wet; but when discontent is focused in a particular place, at a particular time, each person’s anger can sustain that of others, and the fire can rage on for weeks, or even months in some cases. And what has Trump done? He has created the perfect protest sites: concentrated enough to bring large crowds together, and bring the journalists to monitor the crowds, but numerous enough to allow every protestor in America a potentially accessible site;
  • find cracks in the policy that allow fruitful lawsuits to be brought and other potentially successful small-scale campaigns. You don’t have to overturn the policy itself that way, that’s not the point. The point is that if you can mount a plausible case against an element of it, it spreads doubt about the legitimacy of the entire edifice. People feel uneasy about things when they see courts taking challenges seriously, or when they see authorities backing down. And if nothing else, these challenges create a steady stream of news stories to stop people forgetting about the issues. And what has Trump done? He brought out his policies without, in essence, having court-proofed them first. His policies raise strikingly obvious legal concerns – by issuing Visas and Green Cards with one hand, promises and rights attached, and ignoring them with the other – and they do so without any of the due diligence, consultation and legal i-dotting and t-crossing that scares courts away from challenging things like this. His detain-first-and-maybe-release-shamefacedly-later-when-journalists-notice approach also maintains the story by offering a drip of releases, a trickle of new stories, new victims, rather than clearing things out of the way one way or another and drawing a line under it; and he even tried to do this when the person responsible for enforcing it, ultimately, was still an Obama appointee. When you end up having to sack someone within a week of appointing them to their caretaker position, there’s no way to come out of that looking good.

Long story short: everything that Trump enemies should have been trying to do to rally opposition to these measures… was already done for them by Trump himself. It’s like he went down a checklist of ways to screw up. And I don’t approve of these policies, but still… as a reasonably intelligent person, it’s just plain irritating to see people in power be so calamitously bad even at doing bad things. It’s reassuring in a way – the hyperbolic fears about Trump’s new fascist dystopia are plainly exaggerated, if for no other reason than that Trump’s regime clearly don’t have the elementary competence required to dictate anything to anybody. But it’s also sort of scary. There ought to be a dozen different people around Trump with the foreward-thinking (or basic political awareness) to spot these problems and steer him away from them. It wouldn’t have been hard. No self-respecting political operative should have allowed that executive order to apply to people currently in transit – that’s just so fundamental. Anonymous people not allowed on planes in Iran? That’s controversial. Specific five-year-old children in solitary detention at US airports, on US soil, within marching distance of major US population centres, and all with the awareness of US journalists? That’s a crisis. More of the fire could have been taken out of the affair by some relatively minor adjustments to automatically exempt the most contentious victims – exempt special visas, green card holders, maybe post-graduate scientists, etc. That might not make a lot of moral difference, but it would make a huge difference to public opinion. And it goes without saying that they should have lined everything up before firing – an ironclad order with clearly defined terms, guidance issued to staff simultaneously, legal loopholes addressed before signing.

So either everyone around the President is an imbecile, or else they can see how terribly managed this is but don’t have the influence to do anything about it. And frankly those thoughts are both worrying, because next time it might be something really critical that they’re bollocksing up.

 

Of course, it’s not just the Republicans who have problems in the simple-mindedness department. Take the Supreme Court fight, for instance. Democrats in the Senate apparently want to fillibuster any nomination Trump makes. This is understandable, given that the Republicans started it. But “but mummy, he started it!” is very rarely an effective rhetorical approach when it comes to persuading unaffiliated observers. So there are two ways that this can go:

  •  Say “we’ll be looking very closely at the nomination, and we hope the President will nominate somebody we can all quickly move to confirm.” This makes you look reasonable and fair, while not actually committing you to anything. Then when he nominates someone you can say “we deeply regret that the President has chosen to make this a partisan issue with this appalling nomination. As you know, we were willing to work with the President in the interests of the nation, and we were reluctantly willing to confirm even a conservative nominee, because unlike our Republican colleagues we put our constitutional duty ahead of our party – but unfortunately the President spurned that offer of bipartisanship by nominating somebody who is so extreme that we plainly cannot support their confirmation in good conscience.” And people say “hey, the nominee must be bad if they’re putting up this fight over them!” – and when the Republicans say the fillibuster is a break with tradition and imperils the functioning of government, just say “hey, nominate someone moderate next time and you’ll have no problem!”…
  • Or, come out ahead of the nomination and say “we’re going to fillibuster the nomination, whoever it is”. And people say “clearly this isn’t about the appropriateness of the nominee, it’s about party politics”, and they think you’re the one being unreasonable. And then Trump has absolutely zero reason to nominate anyone even vaguely moderate, since you’ve already told him it’ll be the same level of fight no matter whom he names. And then he and the Republicans can turn around and say “look, the Democrats are misusing the fillibuster as pure obstructionism, and we’ll clearly never get a justice confirmed so long as the fillibuster remains”, and then they’ll abolish the fillibuster and the Democrats will be more screwed than they were to begin with.

But needless to say, a number of Senate Democrats have gone for the bullet-to-own-foot Option B!

This is an easy one, people. The ‘reasonableness’ gambit gives you a chance of pressuring Trump into a more moderate pick, and makes your protest when he doesn’t look more legitimate. The obstructionist approach lands you with a more extremist Justice and probably the loss of the fillibuster, while also alienating swing voters. The only upside is that this development is probably close enough to Trump’s announcement that it’ll get overshadowed and people might not notice it – but the fact it’s happening at all is a head-slapping moment.

 

Honestly, there’s a fight going on for the soul of the world right now, and both sides appear to be staffed with buffoons who either don’t know or don’t care how to actually win…

 

…Still, at least the Labour Party is still here to make even Republicans and Democrats look like they know what they’re doing…