November 2012

Got to get these down so I can go work on conlangs.

First, some wonder and congratulations over the election victory for same-sex marriage in four states.  This is a really big thing that deserves to be more than a footnote in the story of the GOP’s demographic decline.

Back when Andrew Sullivan and others started championing same-sex marriage and military service in the early ’90s, it seemed both quixotic and not radical enough.  But Sullivan’s instinct turned out to be spot on.  These certainly shouldn’t be the only things LGBT people should focus on, but they’re good things to push, because they’re about love and respect.  And they don’t trigger the zero-sum thinking that some other issues do.

Besides, there’s something mysterious and fascinating about a successful campaign to change public opinion.  I don’t think anyone knows what makes these work or not work.  Why did the movement to reduce smoking work, but not (so far) the one for healthy eating?  Why has there been a turnaround in LGBT acceptance, when opinion on economic issues has moved rightward?

(I know some of the reasons that have been offered.  Some of them are probably even true as far as they go– e.g., people definitely accept gays and lesbians more once they know some personally.  Yet that can’t be all of it… after all men all know some women personally, but there’s still enormous resistance to feminism.)

The other bit: I mentioned yesterday that Republicans, if they want to be competitive in national elections, need to make a couple of changes:

  • Pick policies that aren’t just geared toward old, white, straight Christian males.
  • Stop alienating everyone else.

Which is true!  But I wanted to point out that it’s not as easy as it sounds.  People like Akin, Mourdock, and Santorum weren’t making gaffes and their words weren’t being distorted.  It’s not like the “you didn’t build that” statement that the Romney campaign seized upon and twisted.  These people really believe that stuff.

Recall the primaries, which revealed a lot about the composition of the Republican coalition.  Roughly you’ve got the religious right (who liked Santorum and Gingrich), the libertarians (Paul), and the plutocrats (Romney).   There’s a lot of overlap (Paul Ryan is both economically libertarian, and ferociously anti-abortion), but these factions are distinct enough that they couldn’t agree on a single leader.

So what does it mean for the Republicans to dial back the crazy?  I’ve said a lot against the libertarians, so I’ll immediately say that they’re not the problem here.  Romney didn’t get in trouble because of how far he bent to please the Ron Paul supporters.  Quite the opposite– they were sidelined at the convention; the party is quite capable of ignoring them (except when they provide philosophical cover for plutocracy).

It basically means pushing back against the religious right.  They’re the constituency for anti-women and anti-gay rhetoric, at the least.  And the thing is, it’s almost impossible to push back against this faction.  They have the numbers and energy the party needs, plus they’ll cheerfully organize a primary challenge against anyone they consider too moderate, even at the cost of losing the seat to the Dems.

Even this picture probably overstates the daylight between the religious right and the establishment.  The best illustration of this may be Karl Rove’s temper tantrum on Fox News over the network’s analysts calling Ohio for Obama.  Rove isn’t a Tea Partier; he’s the callous, cynical insider.  But he’s part of the whole Republican culture of denial: it’s just not acceptable to state things that don’t favor the GOP message, even if they’re true, even if the whole world will see it in two hours.  With that mindset, it’s going to be impossible in the short term to make any adjustments to soften the Republican message.

The thing is, this impossiblity doesn’t make the demographic cliff go away.  In thirty years, there will probably be a successful conservative party whose issues are much more in line with the ideas of David Frum and/or Ron Paul.  Maybe all it’ll take is the current generation of radicals to die off.  But I wonder if something more dramatic will be needed, like the replacement of the Republicans with a new party.  That might be the only way to counter the organizational advantage of the religious right.


Big sigh of relief.  The right’s big gamble has failed.

Their big advantage

In several simple ways this election was the GOP’s to lose.  They went in with some important advantages:

  • They’d already won big in 2010.  They were enthusiastic and well organized and could draw on apocalyptic levels of misdirected rage.
  • They’d prevented an economic recovery.  Unemployment is still high, people are pinched, and that’s terrible for an incumbent.
  • The Democrats had 22 Senate seats to defend, the Republicans just 11.  It should have been possible to take control of both Congress and Presidency.
  • Obamacare is still new, so it triggers people’s resistance to change.  Unaccountably, most of it doesn’t take effect till 2014, so most people aren’t receiving any benefit yet, which makes it easy to be against it.

Their mediocre candidate

They then proceeded to throw these advantages away.  Part of it was, of course, the fault of Mitt Romney.  It’s hard to see how anyone could look at the past couple of years and be impressed by Romney’s integrity, likeability, or commitment to either base or moderate values.  His views blow with the wind, he’s an out-of-touch vulture capitalist, and he was unable to come up with any positive reason to vote for him.  He couldn’t offer a single sensible reason why the economy would perform better under his watch, and he simply refused to provide a tax plan that added up.

On the other hand, he certainly was the best in the primary field, and his very spinelessness was appealing to moderates, who could convince themeselves, improbably, that if he won he’d peel off the Joker mask to reveal the liberal Massachusetts governor.

The demographic cliff

But the real problem was that the GOP bet everything on identity politics.  They have become the party of old, white, straight, Christian males.  Look at some of Obama’s victory margins from last night:

  • Blacks: 93-6
  • Latinos: 71-27
  • Asians: 73-26
  • Women: 55-44
  • Under-30’s: 60-37
  • 30-44 age group: 52-45

Those are blowout numbers, and they’re getting worse for the Republicans every election.  The nonwhite population is increasing, and the old Romney voters are dying off, replaced by overwhelmingly Democratic voters.  The conservative nightmare that it’s always 1979 has little appeal for people who weren’t even born then.

In back rooms and outlying blogs there’s going to be a murmured debate: how can the GOP win back some of these voters?  It’s not rocket science, guys; do these two things:

  • Pick policies that aren’t just geared toward old, white, straight Christian males.
  • Stop alienating everyone else.

If you want to see how the alienation works, read this essay by Rany Jazayerli on how the GOP threw away the Muslim vote.  In 2000, 70% of American Muslims voted for Bush; in 2004 it was 4%.  Seriously, how does a party commit suicide this way?  They may be only 2.6 million, but a few million more votes would have been useful to Mitt, and as Jazayerli explains, they were far from a natural constituency for the Democrats.

Or, you know, there’s women, they’re half the electorate, stop attacking them.  Hopefully the defeat of “legitimate rape” Akin and “will of God” Mourdock will beat some sense into the party.  Missouri and Indiana voted solidly for Romney; they should have been gimmes for the GOP, and part of a GOP takeover of the Senate.  But they threw away these seats to please the crazies (who would have voted for them anyway).

Or, you know, stop picking on gays and lesbians.  Back in the ’90s Republicans decided to make a big appeal to homophobia, passing the Defense of Marriage Act, kicking gays and lesbians out of the military, and pushing ballot measures against same-sex marriage in state after state.  It made horrible, cynical sense at the time: demonize and punish a minority in order to get the bullies’ and bigots’ votes on other issues.  It doesn’t look like a cunning strategy today; it’s another path to cultural and electoral defeat.

Last exit for Galt Gulch

What a difference a decade makes.  It was depressing to be a Democrat in 2002; Republicans had control of all three branches of government and were crowing about the “permanent Republican majority”.  And Democrats seemed too nice to fight back, avoiding all the tools of obstruction Congressional Republicans deployed against Clinton and then Obama.

But where it took fifty years to make the nation tired of the New Deal, it took five to make it tired of Bushism.

Most conservatives today live in a bubble– they only talk to Republicans, they only watch Fox News, they were sure on Monday that Romney would win in a landslide.  Still, a tempting explanation of their strategy over the last few years is that they were desperate precisely because they know about the demographic cliff.  They saw this election as their last chance to create a Randite Utopia where the rich pay little in taxes, the New Deal safety net is dismantled, and the poor and middle class are properly humbled.

Romney actually came pretty close.  But it didn’t work, and in 2016 it’s going to be even harder, and in 2020 harder yet, and…

How do they recover?

Ultimately, the only sane option for the Republicans is to follow my advice above.  Note that I don’t say that they have to be liberals.  They can keep their preference for small government and plutocracy!  But some of the issues of the 2012 campaign– the war on women, anti-gay hysteria, Latino-bashing, voter suppression, unrelenting Randism– have got to go.  You pick which.  Hell, take baby steps: backing immigration reform, for instance, would probably peel off a good number of Hispanic voters.

There’s a problem with getting more moderate, though: the moderates have all been kicked out of the party.  The GOP has been busy electing Congressmen who think that cooperating with John Boehner is a crime.  They don’t have any ideological room to maneuver.  (Which, by the way, is why the centrist hope that a President Romney would have turned out to govern as a moderate was misguided.)

There’s a sane conservativism out there; if you want it, people like David Frum and Russ Douthat will describe it for you.  But there’s no obvious path from here to there.  Frum and Douthat are outliers, despised by the base.  The only sane primary candidate, Jon Huntsman, quit early and I doubt he’s getting any apologetic phone calls today.

The usual corrective for an out-of-touch political party is a decade of losses.  It did wonders for the Democrats after Reagan (and for Labour after Thatcher).  This process should have started for the Republicans starting in 2006– only it was arrested by the fluke victory of 2010.  The electorate in a midterm election skews old and conservative, and there was the terrible economy to rile them up.  So rather than experiencing a salutary loss, the party was rewarded for its craziness.

Their other problem is that they don’t have a clear leader who can take them either leftward or rightward.  There’s no leader of the stature of Ronald Reagan who could make a reasonable deal with the opposition and sell it to the base.  Romney goes back to being a rich guy with no official position, and he’ll be roundly blamed by the faithful anyway.  The figures with centrist appeal, like Chris Christie, Michael Bloomberg, or Colin Powell, disqualified themselves by endorsing or praising Obama.  And on the crazy side, the non-Romneys mostly showed themselves as comically incompetent even at unifying the base.

Ryan will probably emerge from the election unscathed or even buffed, but the strategy of attacking the president from the House is also not looking so good right now.  It didn’t work for Gingrich in the 1990s and it didn’t work for Boehner and Ryan after 2010.

The next few months 

After the election news dies down, the news cycle is going to be dominated by scare stories about the Fiscal Cliffs of Insanity.  Don’t let them get you too excited.  What the cliff means: the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year.  Plus, doing one of those stupid things legislators do in order to motivate themselves to do a real budget deal, Congress agreed to a set of draconian cuts in spending.  The cuts were to both social and defense spending, in order to motivate both sides.  It failed: no real deal happened, so the stupid cuts go into effect in 2013.

So the fiscal cliff means taxes rise and spending is cut.  If you’re worried about the deficit, that’s precisely what’s needed for fiscal balance.  Some disaster!

The problem, of course, is that the deficit hawks are idiots.  An austerity program is precisely what we don’t need right now.  The economy is still underperforming, and austerity would probably trigger a new recession.

Obama sure doesn’t want a recession, and I have to doubt that the Republicans really want one either.  They know now that they’re stuck with Obama for four more years.  Maybe it would help them in 2014… but they already have the House, so what would be the point?  So there’s ample motivation to do the right thing, which is not to fall off the cliff.  Just extend current policies, at least for a couple of years.

Rather than just doing the right thing, I’m sure the GOP will make it a nailbiter.  But the roles are reversed this time: Obama doesn’t have to ask nicely for a tax increase on the rich– he’ll get it on December 31 without doing a thing.  He can play chicken this time.  So my prediction is that we’ll get a short-term deal, probably sometime in the new year.

(A long-term deal would be too much of a stretch.  The GOP rejected Simpson-Bowles; the only possible way to convince themselves to make a deal is to make it short-term, in hopes that President Ryan can undo it in 2017.  Besides, long-term deals are illusory: Congress has no way of dictating the budget ten or twenty years ahead.  Remember, we actually got our fiscal house in order under Clinton, and it just took Bush four years to destroy that work entirely.)

I created a video playlist on YouTube– let’s see if I can embed it.  Here’s a link in case you want to watch it there instead.

These are all videos where I liked both the music and the video. About half of them are from jwz’s mixtapes.  Sorry for the ads, that’s  Google’s fault.  I’ve plugged a few of these before.

Some miscellaneous comments…

  • Megan Washington has her own video for Clementine, but I prefer this one by Keith Loutit.  Tilt-shift baffles me: it shouldn’t work but it does.  If you look at an actual miniature, you don’t get that out-of-focus effect.  Plus, this one actually tells a story!
  • The Limousines’ The Future is brilliant, and (very) darkly comic.  Plus it features a cameo by the zombie-fighting kids.
  • There’s dozens more Usavich shorts by now.  They’re addictive.  The rabbits’ names are Pūchin and Kirenenko.
  • A lot of Gorillaz videos are pretty interesting, though the music doesn’t always fit as well as here.
  • OK, the Saints Row 3 cap (it’s not mine) hardly counts as a video.  But it does showcase the really charming duet of What I Got as well asRebecca Sanabria’s mixture of cute and awesome.
  • Janelle Monae can sure rock a tuxedo.  Or probably anything else she wants to. Daphne Shum (from Rat Vs Possum, in the silver leotard) is also cute as a button.  More cute than a button, really– what a lousy idiom that is.
  • All of Cyriak’s videos are jaw-droppingly creative and surreal.
  • If only OKGo’s music was as inventive as their videos I would have included one.
  • It kind of bugs me that the video for Girls Like You has nothing to do with the lyrics.  And yet it’s a great video.

Some time ago I casually mentioned doing some paid conlanging work, and a collective eyebrow seemed to be raised: you did what?  So I thought I’d talk a little about that.  I’m working on my fourth paid conlang now, and I may be starting #5 soon.  Though this is no way to get rich, it is fun to consider that I’m one of probably a handful of people in the world to make conlangs for money.

This adventure started in 2003, when a fantasy writer, Eric, contacted me to create a language for him.  His reasoning was simple: he’d tried conlanging himself but was dissatisfied with the results; why not go for the best?  So we worked out the details and I created a language called Thesolas.

The process went like this.  I gave Eric a little questionnaire on what kind of languages he liked, to get an idea of the sounds and style he was after.  I made some short (meaningless) sample texts to help refine the process.  And I asked him to tell me as much as possible about the people who’d be speaking the language.

Eric wanted a pretty accessible language, so I kept the morphology simple and didn’t introduce any difficult sounds.  To give it a distinct feeling, rather, I removed common English sounds: of the common stops p t k b d g, Thesolas has just one, t.

I think it turned out rather pretty.  Here’s a sample sentence:

Tis tiriel nisienin ren ai rus u nioth rus seniel.

The way that can be told is not the eternal Way.

As Eric described the speakers, they had a philosophical bent.  Evidentiality seemed like a good fit for that.  I also created a grammaticalized mind/body distinction– e.g. metis is ‘this (physical) thing’, metio is ‘this (non-physical) thing’.  This affected the derivational mophology too; e.g. Thesolas speakers distinguish mumon ‘the physical sensation of fear’ from mumo ‘the emotion of fear’.  A warrior could thus be advised to avoid mumo but ignore mumon.

Eric was happy with the results, and in fact this year he came back to ask for three descendants of Thesolas– that’s my current project, in fact.

Earlier this year I worked on a language for a future video game, for a developer named Guilherme.  The speakers are dragons, so naturally it’s named Draconic.  Here’s a sample:

Ajekiño Xantolo< eɴqχana.
I sought the elixir alongside Sunfire.

The transliteration is much less English-like, because Guilherme liked the looks of my sample.

I had a lot of fun trying to make Draconic fit a non-human species.  Starting with the phonology: as dragons have no lips, they can’t pronounce labials (I don’t know how Skyrim’s dragons pronounce fus!), and as they have a long snout they distinguish four places of articulation (thus the basic stops are t c k q).  There’s a word-final phoneme made by snapping the beak shut.

Flame is phonemic: vowels can be produced with or without combustion.  In addition a word can be ended with a large burst of flame, transliterated <.

Creating the lexicon, I tried to think about how dragons would look at the world.  E.g. they’re enormous by human standards; as a result they don’t have separate words for many small plant and animal species… under a certain size it’s all weeds and vermin to them.  They’re armored, so though they often keep humans as pets or slaves, they have only one word for clothing, irtenîr ‘false skin’.  The natural stance of a dragon is to be on all four feet, which means that what we strange bipedal beings call the back is really the top of a dragon.

Flight also colors their whole way of thinking.  To fly (xi) is to go; to fly alongside (dranxi) is to be a friend or companion; to fly above (serxi) is a threat. There are basic words for the basic movements of flight (pitch, roll, yaw), and changes in direction must be assigned to the correct movement— e.g. you turn right by rolling right (tiŋke) like an airplane, not by rotating about your axis.

They don’t need words for the surface details that are important to creatures confined to a two-dimensional surface– words like bridge, island, path, wall.  To confine a dragon you need a three-dimensional enclosure.  Structures with roofs are thus deeply ambivalent for dragons: they represent both safety (you can’t be attacked from above) and threat (you can’t escape by flight).

If you’re wondering about business details, these projects are work for hire, which is fine with me as I have my own conworld for personal expression.  I asked Eric’s and Guilherme’s permission, in fact, to mention some details about these languages in this post.

(So when can you read more about these conlangs?  Well, that’s up to my clients.  Probably when their projects are further along.)

Is it difficult to work with someone else’s conworld?  Not at all, for me at least.  It adds some constraints, but artistically working within constraints can foster rather than inhibit creativity.  I’ve had fun working on all these projects.

If you’re wondering how you get this kind of work, well, I don’t know!  My clients are all people who have contacted me.

Does this make you want a Zompist Conlang for yourself?  If it does, contact me (markrose at zompist dot com) and we’ll talk.



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