The year has been slow to arrive. My family celebrated Christmas on New Year’s Day, despite the luminaria display on the normal date of the 24th, one marred (despite the optimism of my previous post) by a massive windstorm that blew almost the whole roof layout down after it had stayed stolidly upright for the 28 hours from placement to lighting. We had a small display of lumis on New Year’s Eve, both somewhat traditional and to show the candled bags to my girlfriend, who arrived in New Mexico late on the 27th.
For Christmas/New Year’s, she gave me the board game Lords of Waterdeep, a D&D-based game that is, if I may, nothing like D&D. It was introduced to me by my friend and former debate coach, Greg, and I immediately adored the game, given its almost perfect pacing, competitive play, versatility, and overall fun. I would highly recommend it and my enthusiasm for the game made it almost certain that I would get it eventually. There are eleven “Lords” in the game that one can play, each with two types of quests that they prefer to complete (and an eleventh who just wants to build buildings in the city). In the first game I played with Greg, Clea, Russ, and my girlfriend, I was Nindil Jalbuck.
Nindil Jalbuck’s goals are the unlikely combination of Piety and Skullduggery, a pairing that can only be explained by the fact that he was once an upstanding citizen in a mask who all respected, but he got killed in some sort of robbery and before word got out, a rogue named Hlaavin stepped in and took his place, masquerading as Nindil but using his power and influence for devious deeds. In various places, Hlaavin is described as a doppelgänger for Nindil, making Nindil a functional Two-Face or Dr. Jekyll type character. As far as the world’s concerned, these are not distinct people, but one unified changed man.
Now this may seem like an awful lot of back-story for one cartoonish D&D character that I happened to play the first time I encountered Waterdeep. But it’s a captivating story, and one that reminded me a lot of what I feared as my own outcome in the wake of my divorce. All the time, people use trauma as a justification for their skullduggery; most of the people I’ve had the most trouble with on the debate circuit and elsewhere have justified being jerks to people by noting that bad things happened to them in the past that “made” them this way. While I always retorted that I’d had trauma too, and plenty of it, the loss of identity and self-worth brought on by the way my marriage ended certainly brought me to the brink of wondering if this kind of corruption by events were inevitable. I have tons of anger which I wrestle on a daily basis, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes just above it. And I’m more aware than most of what kind of control and discipline it takes to be a good person. There’s a reason that all our rhetoric about being good describes the “straight and narrow” and incredible pains and awareness. It’s because our default settings are to be petty and selfish. The easier way is the one which requires less diligence. It’s hard work to try.
And thus, when my defenses were down and my identity and life were shattered, the thin line of defense between me being a roughly upstanding person who is trying hard to be better and being something like Hitler seemed blurry and perhaps indefensible. I had lots of long conversations (and maybe even posts here?) about how the path to being Hitler was actually fewer steps and an easier fall than one might think. Many friends wrote this off as hysteria and letting the trauma do the talking, but there’s an additional angle of which being an extremist and an absolutist can make this switch faster than one might think. Much of what inspires me to try to do and be good is a certain absolutism, perfectionism, and idealism. Once ideals shatter, once moral standards are breached, then it’s very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The purpose of a dam is to hold back water. Once the dam is breached, it finds it sufficiently demoralizing to not try any more and let all the water through. On a moral level, it seems there’s very little difference between one transgression and several similar transgressions. And at the point where transgressions are fair game, then the entire motivation starts to change. This is frankly why I felt like suicide was a somewhat reasonable option for a period of several months – because I was literally afraid of who I would become. I knew I could survive, but I was very concerned that whoever did survive would be so dissimilar from me that they would be someone I didn’t want to make it.
Now I know most of you reading this are screaming that this is the problem with absolutism on the moral level and that most of you don’t find the above paragraph relatable because most people in America this century grow up being gradualists and moderates and seeing themselves as making compromises when they see fit. I, for example, find it incomprehensible that people can aspire to be mostly vegetarian but still eat meat occasionally and feel like they’re being better than if they ate as much meat as a regular person. They, in turn, people like Fish and my father, find it incomprehensible that I can only find it good to refrain entirely from meat as a moral aspiration and that eating chicken once a month may as well be running a chicken slaughterhouse. And I’m not sure I have the inclination to make a full defense of my stance for ideal absolutism here and now – I understand that it’s dramatically less practical, but morality has never appeared in any way practical to me. Indeed, because of the ease of life away from the narrow path, it’s always seemed somewhat obvious to me that morality is diametric to practicality. It is decidedly impractical to be good, but this makes it no less of a moral imperative.
As a sideways method of defense, I will say that I think gradualism can easily lead to corruption, perhaps as quickly as my fears of the Hitler within rising up once my principles had been breached. Another of my Christmas/New Year’s gifts, from my mother, was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a book I imagine you’ve all heard of. I’ve been on a bit of a Gladwell kick lately, reading the books backwards. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions – some of his cultural stuff in Outliers seems obviously cherry-picked and his defense of broken-windows theory in the most recently read tome seems a bit shallow. If he has a flaw, it’s that he over-simplifies things that are decidedly more complex and I think he relies too heavily on one or two studies to prove a general theory or practice about humanity globally. (Incidentally, I’m not sure when the scientific method decided that repeating something once or twice in a measured way was sufficient to declare it as a universally repeatable law.) Nevertheless, I take the 10,000-hour rule as Gospel and found a great deal of Blink compelling.
Another thing I found compelling, though, was his study of how little factors can turn ostensibly good people into bad. There’s a study in The Tipping Point about how telling seminarians that they’re late makes them override their Good Samaritan intuitions, even if you have them meditating on the story of the Good Samaritan at the same time. There’s an examination of self-described pacifists in the Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City while over thirty horrified onlookers stood unmoving by their telephones. Instructing people with certain motivations or telling them to focus on certain things will, in most cases, “tip” them into being just as selfish and animalistic as the worst of their peers. Not just because it’s easy, but I think because of the nature of corruption itself. It’s what I’ve long discussed as my general theory of how people “go bad”. Rarely, despite the implications of the concept of a tipping point, is it an overnight plunge into debauchery. Rather, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs with a slight shift in perspective each time. I call this the A to B, B to C, C to D phenomenon. If we imagine this to be a descent into bad behavior, almost no one would ever jump from A to D. People standing on A would find that laughably poor behavior. But B seems forgivable or reachable or reasonable – they can find a way to justify going to B. And so they do. Suddenly, from the perspective of B, C seems reachable. From A that seemed crazy, but they’ve already gone to B and now the world looks a little different – they’ve gotten their hands a little dirty and now it seems like less of a step. This is how most cheating happens, in my opinion, be it on marriages or taxes or in business. Almost no one just jumps into bed with someone or becomes Bernie Madoff overnight. It starts with little things – hand-holding or skimming off the top. But those practices are reaffirming that being bad isn’t as bad as it once seemed and then it becomes a hop, skip, and a jump to disaster. That’s why we have that phrase, hop, skip, and a jump. Because it takes each of those sequential steps: A to B, B to C, C to D. It can’t be one giant leap. It has to be small steps. The road to hell is paved with individual stones, not one giant brick. It is, after all, a road.
Which is why I didn’t think much of Nindil Jalbuck at first. Or even second, for I got his card the second time I played, the first time with my girlfriend after opening the game on Christmas/New Year’s Day. The third time, she got Nindil. Keep in mind there are eleven possible characters and when we played each other, we were only dealing two of these cards. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times we played, I was Nindil Jalbuck. I have currently played twelve games of Waterdeep. Two of them left Nindil out altogether. Two of them, she has been Nindil. And the remaining eight have given me his card.
I was having arguments about odds with Freez when I saw him over the break in Albuquerque and I’m sure he’d find a way to tell me that this experience is somehow unremarkable or predictable. Call me crazy, but this feels like more than a minor trend. A sufficiently freaky trend to make me research Mr. Jalbuck’s backstory and think on it heavily.
Two days ago, I got back from the Dartmouth tournament, slept a lot, woke up and watched a heartbreaking Seahawks game, and logged into my Wells Fargo account to make sure (as I do weekly) that everything was in order. It wasn’t. Someone had rung up over $2,000 in charges in Atlanta and Miami while I was in New Hampshire. There was an early charge for dinner for about fifty bucks and then the next day they went to town, spending 2k on hotels in the South’s major cities. I immediately called the bank’s 24-hour number and reported the fraudulent activity, dealing with an incredibly nice and helpful individual who promised to reverse the charges, issue a new card, and investigate the fraud.
The same thing, roughly, happened to my parents’ credit card a few days before I arrived in Albuquerque last month. My mother asked the people who helped her through it if this was common and they said it happens all the time. And when I spoke to a local banker yesterday in getting a temporary card, he said that there’s been an “epidemic” of this lately. Now admittedly he was using this in part as a platform to try to sell me a bunch of fee-based “protections” for my account, but the part in which he described helping a ton of different customers with similar problems recently seemed genuine. And epidemic is precisely the word that Malcolm Gladwell uses across The Tipping Point to describe the virality of ideas that catch fire in this or any culture. Indeed, that book more than any other created the meme of the “good” virus, of things “going viral”. It’s not that bank fraud is a new concept – I would venture that everyone reading this knows someone who’s experienced it. But it may be reaching some sort of tipping point.
My banker suggested that part of it is a new technology they’ve been finding in some ATMs that somehow reads the magnet strip of the card without interfering with the transaction in any way. It’s some sort of tiny scanner that they put in the card-reading slot that must be sufficiently transparent to let you proceed with your transaction while still capturing the information in the magnet, which is all the information needed to either recreate the card or use its numbers online. A little device that turns the cash machine into Nindil Jalbuck, doing good and ill at the same time, marching your account down the successive path to a dwindled state.
It doesn’t take much to change things from good to bad, to lead us on to the gradual trail to our own demise. The only thing we have in defense is a righteous vigilance against the weakness and temptations in our own soul, the little things we let ourselves get away with. There’s a little Nindil in all of us and the hard work of trying to try is the only way we can keep the dark side at bay.
The other moral of this story is that you should probably check your bank account status regularly. There have yet to be more bogus charges accrued, but I’m probably going to be obsessively refreshing my bank account page for a while. My banker tried to tell me to avoid dubious ATMs on the road (“always find a Wells Fargo if you can”), but also admitted that they’ve found these devices in WF ATMs, so that hardly seems like a fix.
If you’re looking for another moral, it might be to play Lords of Waterdeep. It’s really fun.