Ukraine: How we got here and what to do

My short opinion piece on Ukraine — how we got here and what to do.

Clueless foreign policy

None of the White House administrations in the 21st century look good on this subject, though they are often misunderstood. Take Trump. In terms of his rhetoric he was always warm (if not ass-kissing) towards Putin, though in terms of his actions he was harsher on Russia than Obama was. He armed the people of Ukraine (in 2017), which Obama had refused to do. Two hundred Russian soldiers were killed in Syria by U.S. forces under Trump, not Obama. Obama was the one who said (to Dmitry Medvedev) that he wanted to be flexible with Russia in 2012. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia not under Trump, but under Obama, who turned a blind eye. The list goes on. Throughout his entire presidency, Obama underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime; he dismissed Mitt Romney for “exaggerating the Russian threat”. So while Obama didn’t like Putin, those personal feelings never translated into policy. Trump on the other hand sent Ukraine anti-tank weapons to use against his Russian “friend”.

As for Biden, in the summer of 2021 he reiterated George W. Bush’s foolish promise (made in 2008) to induct Ukraine into NATO — which went a long way toward provoking a Russian invasion. As early as 2013 (soon after Putin came to power), it was obvious that the Kremlin was obsessed with Ukraine and would in due time use force to keep it out of NATO.

The Trump administration was no less provoking when it expressed its support for the decision by the Greek Orthodox Church (in Constantinople) to create an independent church for Ukraine (in 2019), despite virulent opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church. Religious freedom in itself is obviously a good thing, but sticking our noses into this schism enraged Moscow. The Russian church viewed it as a direct attack on its perceived canonical territory, and the Kremlin blamed the sowing of discord between Russia and Ukraine on America. It’s holy writ in the Kremlin that the creation of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church is an American project designed to destroy world Orthodoxy and harm Russia.

In sum, bad western policies — unneeded NATO expansion, and backing an incendiary move against the Russian Orthodox Church — helped put Ukraine into this mess. They all but guaranteed an eventual invasion, which Putin sees as nothing less than a holy war.

What to do now

The time for preventive measures is over, and little constructive can be accomplished now. The U.S. should not declare war on Russia, nor send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. Obama correctly stated (in 2016) that Ukraine is a core interest of Russia, not of the United States. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t assist at all.

Sending Ukraine weapons (as Trump did, but Obama refused to do) is laudatory. America should offer visas and easy paths to citizenship for people of Ukraine (and for the citizens of Taiwan, immediately, before waiting to see if China decides to follow Russia’s playbook). We’ve begun to level sanctions, though these are dicey, as they often impact other nations by way of collateral. Russian banks should be unable to do business in financial markets.

Acknowledging our own blame in the creation of this mess is critical. Foreign policy is tricky business, but you’d think we would have learned some lessons from studying the past. Avoiding slaughter should be a number one concern of any U.S. president, and it’s irresponsible to provoke nations into war when it’s avoidable. It’s also irresponsible to sit completely on the sidelines when thugs like Putin make their move. Russia and China are nuclear powers with potential to become global threats.

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

I checked this book out from the library. It looks like it might be the definitive book on the subject I’ve been waiting for. The blurbs below (including one from Jonathan Rauch) speak volumes.

“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made. Jacob Mchangama never loses sight of the trouble freedom causes but always keeps in mind that lack of freedom creates horrors.”―P.J. O’Rourke

“A lot of people now claim that free speech is a danger to democracy or social inclusion. In this vital book, which is as entertaining as it is erudite, Jacob Mchangama shows why that is dead wrong. Drawing on both historical analysis and normative argument, he makes a compelling case for why anyone who cares about liberty or justice must defend free speech.”―Yascha Mounk, author of The Great Experiment, and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University

“Jacob Mchangama’s history of the world’s strangest, best idea is the definitive account we have been waiting for. It teems with valuable insights, lively characters, and the author’s passion for the cause he has done so much to advance. Mchangama brings to life the ancient struggles which established free speech and also the modern dangers which embattle it. Free Speech is that rare book which will impress scholars as much as it entertains readers, all while telling the world’s most improbable success story.”―Jonathan Rauch, author of The Constitution of Knowledge

“This indispensable book is a must for both defenders of free speech and, even more so, for those entertaining the notion that free speech should or must be traded away in order to advance other public goods.”―Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All

“A work with no real counterpart… Mchangama’s work may well prove to be one of the most important books on free speech published in our lifetimes.”―First Amendment News

“Makes a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies… Readers on both the right and the left seeking insights into modern day debates over free speech will welcome this evenhanded and wide ranging history.”―Publishers Weekly

“An insightful, nicely woven history that provides a coherent picture of how free speech has developed globally… A highly recommended intellectual history.”―Library Journal, Starred Review

“Addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned.”―Wall Street Journal

“Presents a compelling case for the unique, universal, enduring importance of free and equal speech for all people, regardless of their particular identities or ideologies. This fascinating account, of magisterial scope, demonstrates the constant liberating and equalizing force of free speech, throughout history and around the world.  It also documents the constant censorial pressures, including many that reflect positive aims, and their inevitable suppression of full and equal human rights.”―Nadine Strossen, Former National President, American Civil Liberties Union

I’ll post my own review after I read it.

Stranger Things: The Episodes Ranked

Here are my updates with the season-4 episodes. See also my updated rankings of the four seasons as well as the 50 best scenes in the four seasons.

Stranger Things 2 finale recap: Season 2, Episode 9 |
1. Season 2, Episode 9: The Gate. 5+ stars. The sophomore finale is the series’ crown jewel. It starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, with each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc for this season, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. In a particularly heart-rending scene, Mike attacks Hopper for keeping El hidden in his cabin for the past year. Will’s exorcism is a ripper, as Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters near him, cranked up full blast. El’s closing the gate is the moment of glory, but the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as the four boys each end up with the “right girl”, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and more than I dared hope for in the sequel season.
2. Season 4, Episode 7: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab. 5+ stars. Feature-film length episodes run the risk of bloat, but I wouldn’t trim a single minute of The Massacre at Hawkins Lab. It has a threefold climax, the most crucial one being the slaughter teased in the prologue. It’s easy to see what’s coming, though no less dramatic in impact: El isn’t the slayer, but rather One, the first lab child. El remembers her eight-year old self banishing One to the Upside Down, turning him into Vecna, and thus making the pivotal connection she needs to get her powers back. Meanwhile Hopper gets the showdown of his career, battling the demogrogon in the Russian gladiator pit. Then there is the long trek through the Upside Down, ending with Nancy trapped in Vecna’s mind, and the way she “sees” what Henry Creel/One/Vecna is explaining to Eleven in the past adds up to a genius montage. Usually the finales are the best episodes of each season, but for the fourth season, The Massacre of Hawkins Lab reigns supreme, and is a masterpiece of modern television.
3. Season 4, Episode 4: Dear Billy. 5 stars. I never had any use for the Sadie-haters, and loved her as a newcomer in season 2. But in Dear Billy she unquestionably cements Max’s status as a full equal with the other kids as she barely escapes a gruesome death, with a lot of help from Kate Bush. The episode is a smash on all sides of the story and has a flood of homage, to films like The Shining and Shutter Island and Silence of the Lambs. Even the California events made my heart stop when the government thugs crashed the Byers house and began shooting. It says something about how good this episode is when Eleven isn’t even in it. (That hasn’t happened since season 2, episode 6.) Oh, and just as I was ready to curse the Russia story for making things too easy on Hopper, his escape plan backfires miserably. What really makes this episode work is the time clock everyone is on as they rush around trying to save Max, knowing she only has a day to live. It gives Dear Billy a sense of non-stop urgency.
4. Season 1, Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. The first season’s finale has the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast, and when it appears (on top of a visit from Steve), hell breaks loose. Steve is used brilliantly here; I was sure he was going to be killed as a convenient throw-away villain, but he turned out to be the surprise hero in a way that really worked. Meanwhile at the lab, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien. Hopper’s flashback to his daughter flatlining is a powerful juxtaposition over Will’s resuscitation; all along saving Will has been about him coming to terms with the daughter he could never let go. Finally at the school, El’s sacrifice is heartbreaking, and devastates poor Mike, who has just promised to take El in as a member of his family.

Stranger Things 2 Review: Episode 4, "Will the Wise," Is Stuck In A Rut - GameSpot
5. Season 2, Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes of season 2 comes a shift in tone and blistering performances from both Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Noah nails it with subtleties even Linda Blair didn’t pull off in The Exorcist. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Millie also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. This results in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Will the Wise is a vastly underrated episode, probably because there’s not much action, but it’s almost as good as the finales for the dramatic performances.
6. Season 1, Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. A widely-praised episode for every good reason. Hopper and the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river, and they have no reason to think it’s a fake. Mike’s furious reaction as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara killed in the shadow realm; the scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with her son through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get out of the house as the demogorgon bursts out of the living room wall. It was this episode that fully hooked me into Stranger Things. I binged the rest of the episodes from this point and have never looked back since.
7. Season 2, Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 5 stars. Judged by many fans and critics to be the worst episode of the series, it’s in fact one of the best, and gets better every time I see it. It aligns with season 2’s over-arching theme of estrangement and alienation, as we see Eleven traveling to Chicago and joining a street-gang led by her long lost “lab sister”. Kali and her gang hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for homicidal revenge. The atmosphere evokes The Dark Knight, as El goes on a vigilante tear by night with her new friends, and it’s a crucial part of her character arc. With Kali’s gang she tastes the thrill of cold blooded murder, until she realizes that’s not what she is. Her departure is great: Kali warns her that her friends in Hawkins can’t save her, and El says, “No, but I can save them.” It’s a brilliant episode and essential to Eleven’s growth and story arc.
8. Season 4, Episode 8: Papa. 5 stars. The epic farewell to Papa exceeded my expectations, but the other storylines are strong too. Will and Mike’s scene is especially heartbreaking — Will assuring Mike that El needs him, but really talking about his own needs, with Mike still utterly clueless. The Hawkins storyline is one of massive preparation for invading the Creel House to slay Vecna, and there are touching moments between pairs in the “Hawkins Army” (Eddie and Dustin, Steve and Robin, Lucas and Max) before the finale showdown. But El’s story dominates, as she confronts Brenner for his monstrous manipulations, and then kills her would-be assassins — spinning the helicopter in the air tauntingly, before smashing it to the ground in a massive explosion. El loves Papa to the end, but she is strong enough not to absolve him for the horrible things he did to her and her mother. The scene in the above pic makes you proud of Eleven like never before, and that’s saying everything.
9. Season 3, Episodes 8: The Battle of Starcourt. 5 stars. The lame comedy season contains an admittedly socking finale that justifies its existence. The opening scene of El’s self-surgery on her leg is incredibly excruciating to watch. By stripping the hero of her powers, everyone is left to face down the Mind Flayer without the usual El-ass-poundings. The poundings come from fireworks (“Satan’s Babies”) and the spectacle is staggering. And yet fireworks only go so far: the way El reaches Billy and saves him is transcendent. The epilogue inverts the fairy-tale ending of season 2, where the Snow Ball paid off nine dark episodes of alienation and estrangement; it was the happy ending we earned. The Farewell to Hawkins caps off a sunnier season most sadly, and the farewells between everyone, especially Mike and El, are played with affecting honesty. It genuinely hurts to think of these friends being separated again, after all they’ve been through together.
10. Season 1, Episode 4: The Body. 5 stars. This chapter is a major turning point in season 1, of slow-burns and revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. Mike realizes that Will is alive right away (despite his tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels Will’s voice over the radio. There is the classic sequence of the boys dressing up El, basically making her over into the “ideal girl” as imagined by twelve-year old boys, with rather ghastly results. But the best scene is Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last gave me a nightmare and goes a long way in counting for my very high esteem of this episode, which is intensely emotional from start to finish.
11. Season 2, Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure, and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “everywhere”. Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. As if that weren’t enough, the bonding between Steve and Dustin has become the fan favorite pairing of season two, and for good reason. Their moments together in this episode are among the best in the season.

Photo of Bellwood Quarry as Stattler Quarry in Stranger Things — MovieMaps
12. Season 1, Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. There are so many defining moments in this episode: Mike jumping off a cliff, El’s telekinetic rescue, Jonathan beating the shit out of Steve, and our first look at El’s mother, Terry Ives. The title “The Monster” works on multiple levels. The demogorgon is the monster, of course, but it’s just a creature that just feeds according to its nature. El thinks of herself as the real monster, because she brought the creature into the world to begin with. But that award should go to Doctor Brenner, someone who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives (like Terry Ives) and child abductions that turn kids into numbers for grand-scheme lab experiments. Steve could be a monster too; his jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy; his bullying is carried to the extreme of holding Dustin at knife point and almost making Mike kill himself. The reconciliation between Mike and El, with Dustin overshadowing, has become one of the series’ most iconic moments showing the power of friendship.
13. Season 4, Episode 5: The Nina Project. 5 stars. In this episode we get inside two important places: the Silo Lab in Nevada and the Creel House in Hawkins. And we are gobsmacked by the reintroduction of Dr. Brenner, who is actually in cahoots with Dr. Owens, as both of them are working against a government faction that wants to abduct El. Owens and Brenner want El to regain her powers — Owens because he believes El can save Hawkins (and the world) from an impending shadow invasion, Brenner because… well, because he’s Brenner and misses his Stockholm sessions with his precious lab-daughter. Millie Bobby Brown conveys all the appropriate mental anguish and her resentment for Papa that she’s been repressing for years. There are great character moments in the side-stories: Hopper pours on the self-recriminations after his botched escape plan, while Mike and Will have one of their best moments in the series. Will is clearly in love with Mike, can’t say it, but the things he does say show him to be Will the Wise indeed.
14. Season 2, Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 ½ stars. A massively underrated episode. What this premiere establishes is the cost of last year’s events, and that the sophomore season will do everything a proper sequel should do. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Everyone is estranged, from others and themselves. Mike still pines for Eleven, calls out to her every night in vain on his walkie talkie, and shits on his friends; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb and is crushed by guilt. This all adds up to a superb way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same. Will’s plight is ominous: he won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering post traumatic stress on top of receiving hellish visions from the Upside Down. His exam with Dr. Owens offers the first taste of the season’s Exorcist vibes; subdued and sinister. By the end of this episode, it’s clear that season 2 is in excellent hands, and will be the kind of sequel most directors avoid in favor of pandering to the mainstream.
15. Season 1, Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious: the boys’ 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. It establishes their acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; the hilarious Dustin ruled by his appetites; and Will the sensitive kid. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away. Eleven’s encounter with Benny Hammond is a perfect introduction of her character. In the short space of his screen time I really loved the guy and was pissed at the goons who shot him. The Vanishing of Will Byers introduces all the other characters too (Joyce, Hopper, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve) with great economy.
16. Season 4, Episode 9: The Piggyback. 4 ½ stars. The most ambitious finale has so much going for it. I mean, Jesus, the villain wins and the apocalypse begins. For all the meticulous planning against Vecna, it comes to naught and Hawkins is ripped apart. Max is blind, broken, and brain dead. D&D players are scapegoated, their dead leader vilified. That’s how you do an end-game… except for some rather irritating problems. There’s too much chaos going on at once, long chunks of clunky dialogue, and Vecna gloating too much instead of tearing El apart. Mike and Lucas are given awkward monologues at terrible moments: Mike repeating his love for El as she strains to break free of Vecna’s mental prison, Lucas sermonizing about jock rage as he and Jason face off; the dialogue in each case is overdone and a bit melodramatic. And unlike the brilliant montage of Max’s memories in Dear Billy, the montage of El’s memories as she resurrects Max is trying too hard to repeat that formula. There aren’t enough major casualties. But there are powerful moments and great teamwork from afar: El piggybacks onto Max’s mind, into a corrupted memory of the Snow Ball dance that’s brilliantly constructed. The idea of Vecna perverting Max’s memories in order to break down her defenses is inspired. And the epilogue reunion of El and Hopper is so well played it’s tear-jerking.
17. Season 2, Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 4 ½ stars. Many would put this episode much higher, and I can understand why. The death of Bob is admittedly epic; the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. In the second half, Mike gets the idea that Will may know how to defeat the thing possessing him, thus beginning an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is well played. The tension in the final standoff (above pic) is impressive for not a single shot being fired. I nearly had a heart attack when the demo-dog came smashing through the window.
18. Season 1, Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 ½ stars. The prologue to this episode could stand its own as a short film: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike almost making a move on El, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike in the junkyard. The rest of the episode centers around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). This is the only episode in season 1 in which the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together, as they get El to use a tub of water to locate Will. The shadow version of Castle Byers is creepy as hell and amounts to a very dark episode.

Stranger Things 4 – “Chapter Six: The Dive” – Father Son Holy Gore
19. Season 4, Episode 6: The Dive. 4 ½ stars. In this episode the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s is milked for all its worth, as basketball captain Jason becomes convinced that Eddie Munson has devil-powers and his fellow D&D players are part of a cult. Seeing the parents of our kid-heroes swallow this fundie junk seriously pushes my buttons, and for once I applaud Erica’s loud-mouthed ridicule. Meanwhile El continues her memory therapy at the Silo Lab, reliving her traumatic events at the Hawkins Lab when she was eight. The scenes between her and Brenner are all I hoped for and more. I also get loads of mileage out of this episode for the Lynchian weirdness in the side-stories: Hopper shares a surreal “last supper” with fellow inmates about to battle the demogorgon, while Team California invades Suzie’s house full of demented little kid geniuses. The final act — Steve assaulted by the demo-bats after being yanked down the lake and through the Gate — is heart-stopping. A terrific episode all around.

Stranger Things 2 episode 2 recap trick or treat freak - Polygon
20. Season 2, Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 4 ½ stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. There’s the Ghostbusters mileage first of all, as Mike bitches at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. I always have a bad moment when Will is crouched behind a building and the Mind Flayer funnels its way down the stairs to grab him. The best moment is back at Mike’s house, as the two boys have a touching moment, taking comfort in each others damage. It’s almost as if Mike thinks Will is the only one worthy of his affections, on the logic that if he suffering so much (from the loss of El) then so should others suffer. There are also the initial flashbacks which pick up right after El banished the demogorgon in season 1. She returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life), and it’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is heartbreaking as she realizes she needs to go into hiding.
21. Season 4, Episode 1: The Hellfire Club. 4 stars. The season-4 premiere announces a return to form, with old friends separated — El and Will in Lenora Hills, California, everyone else in Hawkins — and carrying on as best they can. El is being mercilessly bullied and her class presentation of her father (Jim Hopper) as a famous historical figure is utterly heartbreaking. The Hawkins scene also, as Mike and Dustin grow apart from Lucas, who has joined the basketball team to lose his nerdy image and be cool. The titular Hellfire Club is a D&D group run by a Satanic metal head (so parents think), and it’s nice to see the D&D game being redeemed once again in Stranger Things, as the scene we got in Season 3 was silly. And when Vecna kills Chrissy at the end — in a spectacle of extreme violence — it’s clear that season 4 is playing for keeps.

Five Thoughts on Stranger Things' “The Weirdo on Maple Street” – Multiversity Comics
22. Season 1, Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The best scenes are at the Wheeler house with El and her new friends, especially the one involving the boys’ prepubescent horror at this girl they just met who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked?” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Another great scene is El’s flipping the game board as she tries to convey the concept of the Upside Down. The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and obviously not Steve either; their characters are annoying in the way of entitled teens. But it’s for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.
23. Season 4, Episode 3: The Monster and the Superhero. 4 stars. El and Mike have a well-earned moment here, when she accuses him of not loving her anymore, and Mike digs himself in deeper by protesting that he thinks she’s the most incredible person in the world and a superhero — which she obviously isn’t anymore, but it’s the wrong thing to say in any case. This is how their season-3 fight/breakup should have been handled; with the seriousness it deserved. Then the government goons close in on El, and Paul Reiser makes a splendid return as Doctor Owens. This is just in time to save her from jail-time for smashing her bully’s face with a roller skate, but never mind the contrivance. Meanwhile, Joyce and Murray leave for Alaska (right before El is arrested), while Nancy and Robin do some library sleuthing and learn that the 1950s serial killer Victor Creel believed that a demon lived in his house.
24. Season 2, Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, this one channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls. Stand-by-Me bickering is on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.
25. Season 2, Episode 5: Dig Dug. 4 stars. The middle episode of season two is good though I don’t care for the way Murray engineers Nancy and Jonathan’s first fuck. Hopper has become trapped in the underground tunnels spreading into the town, which allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually those very tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries. Lucas lets in Max on the party secrets — Eleven and the Upside Down — and is scorned for his honesty. It’s Eleven who gets the best part of the episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state. Aunt Becky invites her to live there in a very moving scene.
26. Season 1, Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between him and Mike before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s good exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

Stranger Things' Season 4 Episode 2 Recap: 'Vecna's Curse'
27. Season 4, Episode 2: Vecna’s Curse. 3 ½ stars. With Eddie on the run, it falls to Dustin, Max, Steve, and Robin to hunt him down before the town has him tried and convicted. Leading the inquisition, even more than the police, is Jason with his basketball crew in tow, including Lucas. One senses the Duffers are enjoying the hell out of making jocks the villains and D&D freaks the good guys, and I applaud it 100%. The California story is the best part of this episode, as El snaps at the skating rink, fed up with her bullies, and gives Angela a concussion. Through it all Will’s sexual frustrations for Mike are all too clear, though Mike is fairly clueless. We see Hopper in Russia for the first time; more stage-setting. It’s the weakest episode of season 4 but still quite good.

And now for the season 3 episodes, which are in varying degrees marred by the intrusion of too much comedy…
28. Season 3, Episode 4: The Sauna Test. 3 ½ stars. Plans are put into motion here. Dustin, Steve and Robin recruit Lucas’ sister Erica to crawl though vent shafts; her reward is getting stuck with them inside an elevator that drops into a Russian hell. Hopper beats information out of the mayor, and learns that the mall owners have been buying up property in Hawkins for some reason. But it’s the kids who confront the menace heads on, in a dramatic face-off with Billy, one of the series’ most intense scenes. When they do trap Billy, he doesn’t stay trapped for long. They engage in a barbell-throwing match, which ends with him almost choking her to death before she throws him through a brick wall. Without question the best season-3 episode (not counting the finale).
29. Season 3, Episode 6: E Pluribus Unum. 3 ½ stars. This episode is sandwiched between two mighty El moments. The first is the ass-pounding she gives to the Mind Flayer, as she barely saves Nancy from joining the flayed. The grander spectacle is at the end, when she locates the source of the Mind Flayer by communing in the Void with Billy. Communing is something El has done only once before, when she tapped into her mother’s memories in season 2. When she mines Billy’s head, she finds herself on a beach bombarded by his chaotic memories, which allows Billy to latch on to her telepathically. It’s a terrifying moment when she pulls herself out the Void only to find Hopper’s cabin empty and all her friends gone. She’s still in the Void after all — in some replica version of the cabin — and Billy emerges from around a corner, advancing on her, delivering an evil speech on behalf of the Mind Flayer. Hopper’s side of the story, however, is awful; he, Joyce, Murray, and Alexei are painful to watch in their silliness.

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30. Season 3, Episode 7: The Bite. 3 ½ stars. Things start to look bad for El when she’s bitten by the Mind Flayer and put on borrowed time. But at least she gave it a good ass-pounding (though only after almost being pulled through the cabin’s roof). Inside the mall there’s a clever reversal of roles, when Dustin and Erica assume command of Steve and Robin who are still recovering from being drugged and tortured. They duck into a showing of Back to the Future and there’s a revelation when Steve and Robin need to puke in the bathroom (Robin is lesbian). Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce and Murray Bauman get mired at the the town fireworks party, where amusement park rides and fun houses become a hunting ground for the Russian Terminator; he kills Alexei and almost takes out Hopper too. Overall campy, like most of season 3, with some good stuff mixed in.

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31. Season 3, Episode 3: The Case of the Missing Lifeguard. 3 ½ stars. This one opens on delightfully crass teenage humor, when El spies on Mike in the Void, and sees him furious at the way she dumped him in episode 2; he and Lucas are belching, farting, and denigrating the female “species” (a word El doesn’t know) as illogical and emotional; it’s a very entertaining use of the Void, which El usually uses for serious purposes. But this is ultimately Will’s episode, who realizes the Mind Flayer is back in Hawkins. This is after a long and personally hard day in which (a) Mike and Lucas mock the D&D campaign he is running for them, and to which (b) he responds by storming off in the rain, prompting (c) Mike to blast him for “not liking girls”. The tree fort scene is heartbreaking, as Will breaks down and cries, tearing up the photos of him and his friends, and smashing his sacred hideout with a baseball bat.

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32. Season 3, Episode 5: The Flayed. 3 stars. Team Dustin (himself, Steve, Robin, and Erica) land in a vast underground bunker, finding the Russians working to reopen the Gate to the Upside Down. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce come to Alexei’s house, where they are attacked yet again by the Russian Terminator. Nancy and Jonathan join the Mike & El team, since Nancy has seen a hospital patient turn black like Will did during his season-two exorcism. Their collective sleuthing leads them to the home of the newspaper editor, littered with blood and toxic chemicals, and then back to the hospital, where hell breaks loose and ends on our first solid look at the new Mind Flayer: a gross composition of mutilated human beings. On whole The Flayed is the standard fare of information gathering for all the teams.

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33. Season 3, Episode 2: The Mall Rats. 2 stars. It could be alternately titled “The War of the Sexes”. The rats who matter here are less the critters being absorbed into the Mind Flayer, and more the kids, who take a field trip to the Starcourt Mall as they declare war on the opposite gender. El is treated to sights she’s normally not allowed to see, and the shopping spree is Max’s attempt to convince El there is more to life than boys — and that El should “dump Mike’s ass” unless he comes back to her crawling on all fours. The boys finally run into them, each side slings some nastiness back and forth, and El dumps Mike indeed — a horribly comical scene that does no justice to everything these two have been through. The break-up was actually a good idea, but it shouldn’t have been played for laughs.

34. Season 3, Episode 1: Suzie, Do You Copy? 2 stars. The premiere’s best scenes were teased in trailers: Dustin’s return home from summer camp, and the heat between Billy and Karen Wheeler at the pool. Billy wants to shag Mrs. Wheeler to kingdom come, but outrageously that subplot goes nowhere. As for our hero the young Wheeler, it’s at first nice to see him and El kissing in her bedroom, to Hopper’s constant outrage — except that this three-way dynamic becomes cartoonish, and indeed these are the very worst scenes in the series. The scenes with Hopper and Joyce are equally bad: we are to believe that Hopper finds the idea of a “heart to heart” talk with his daughter unimaginable, despite the fact that he and El did exactly that in the very last episode we saw them in (their drive to the lab in Season Two’s The Gate). What a mess, and what a joke.

Problems with Presidential Rankings

On this President’s Day I’d like to lay out the biases that make presidential ranking lists (C-Span, Siena, Wall Street, etc.) so artificial. Here are the most common biases:

  • The charisma bias: Ever since FDR — when presidents have been able to use radio or TV as a platform to reach the American citizens — presidents with a high charisma tend to be received well, remembered well, and thus rated well, irrespective of their actual policies. Charismatics are usually Democrats (FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), though Reagan is the Republican exception. I can’t exaggerate how prevalent the charisma bias is. As human beings we are suckers for charisma; we feel the pull of a natural leader. That’s what makes us easy to be led astray, and to believe in leaders that aren’t good for us.
  • The effectiveness bias: Presidents are often ranked highly because they got loads of legislation passed, or were otherwise effective in implementing their agendas. James Polk and Lyndon Johnson were probably the most effective presidents in history, and historians often praise them for accomplishing “all their goals” — seldom ever pausing to reflect on how atrocious those goals were. A president can be very effective and successful while also being very bad for the people he serves.
  • The “service during a crisis” bias: Perversely, presidents are often ranked on how they deal with crises — especially wars — rather than on whether they could have prevented them. Thus Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR glow with halos for their actions in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. This despite the fact that Wilson was the very worst president in history, FDR not much better, and Lincoln somewhat ambiguous. Avoiding crises speaks much more highly for a president than having his mettle tested (often for the worse) during a crisis.
  • The legacy bias: Some presidents are assessed by noteworthy things they did either before or after they were in office. For example, Thomas Jefferson often ranks much higher than he deserves because he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Conversely, John Tyler ranks much lower than he deserves because he committed treason against the presidential office he once served in (voting as a Virginian delegate for his state to secede from the union, and then elected to the Confederate House of Representatives). A president should only be assessed for the good or bad things he did in his capacity as president.

This site is very helpful in laying out the problems in the well-known ranking lists that reflect the above biases. A handful will suffice:

  • In the Schlesinger rankings, the presidents up through Harry Truman have been in relatively “locked” positions for six decades, since Arthur Schlesinger favored Democratic candidates and stacked the deck in their favor when he polled historians. Since then rankers have been reluctant to stray too far from Schlesinger, even when new evidence and increased hindsight shows how biased Schlesinger was. Put simply, scholars often don’t like rocking the boat too much. This is why John Tyler and Warren Harding — two excellent presidents — are still to this day ranked among the worst, if not the very worst. They didn’t align with Schlesinger’s politics, and Schlesinger continues to hold sway.
  • The Siena rankings use criteria that are useless and have nothing to do with the measure of a president’s greatness: background, imagination, intelligence, luck (seriously), willingness to take risks, party leadership, communication ability.
  • The Murray-Blessing rankings suffer largely from the familiarity bias, favoring “well-known” presidents from the early founding-father period, and recent modern periods, but passing over some excellent “silent” executives, like Chester Arthur and Rutherford Hayes.
  • The famous C-Span rankings use mostly worthless criteria: public persuasion, crisis leadership, moral authority, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/agenda — all of which have nothing to do with how good or bad a president’s policies are. To its credit, C-Span does use three meaningful criteria — economic management, international relations, and equal justice for all — but these criteria are seldom applied consistently.
  • The Wall Street Journal rankings aimed for a more balanced ranking but was only minimally successful cutting against the influence of Schlesinger.
  • The Ridings-McGiver poll used mostly worthless criteria: leadership qualities, accomplishments and crisis management, political skill, appointments, character and integrity. The ability to lead isn’t in itself an indicator of presidential greatness; accomplishments themselves say nothing about whether or not the accomplishments are actually good (see the effectiveness bias, above); political skills are important but say nothing about one’s policies; character and integrity are nice, but vague and subjective, and — again — utterly irrelevant to how good or bad the executive’s policies are.

You get the idea.

For years I’d been fascinated by these artificial rankings, which is why I embarked on my own study to rank the presidents more seriously. Using the three-fold criteria of peace, prosperity, and liberty (representing foreign policy, domestic policy, and justice respectively), I set out to grade each president on those bases alone. In this I took my cue from the important work of Ivan Eland, while also taking issue with how Eland applied (sometimes inconsistently) his own excellent criteria.

The same site I mentioned above has critiqued Eland for his weaknesses, in a seven-part series: one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven. They’re worth going through. I have similar objections to Eland, and my own rankings represent what I hope are an improvement (and more consistent use) of the criteria that Eland rightly insisted on.

For President’s Day: Ranking Joe Biden (So Far)

Yes, I know it’s foolish to attempt ranking our current POTUS after only a year into his term, but I need some excuse to celebrate President’s Day, and so I wrote up his first-year report card. Keep in mind the criteria I use to assess a president. I’m not interested in how the guy makes speeches, his charisma (or lack thereof), his management style, his approval rating, or how goal-oriented he is (for he may have bad goals). I give high marks rather to a constitutional president who strives for peace, prosperity, and liberty (all of which, when you think about it, are what most people want). In other words, I care about actual policies — foreign policy, domestic policy, and the defense of liberty and justice. It turns out that Biden isn’t too bad… well, compared to his three predecessors anyway.

I’m certainly not promoting Joe Biden. There’s too much about him I don’t like. This country hasn’t had a bona fide good president since Jimmy Carter, and I don’t expect we’ll see another one for a long time. But relatively speaking, Biden is (so far, anyway) the best POTUS of the 21st century — seriously, the bar has been set that low since 2001. Here’s his report card:

Joe Biden. Rating: Average.

1. Peace/Foreign Policy: The worst stain so far is Afghanistan. Biden’s incompetence in managing the withdrawal was staggering. Any fool would have evacuated the embassy and our Afghan allies and their families before withdrawing troops. This incident is analogous to (though even worse than) Jimmy Carter’s bungling of the Iran-hostage crisis, and does a lot in torpedoing Biden’s otherwise relatively decent foreign policy record. At the very least, under Biden, the U.S. hasn’t been involved in long-standing ground troop commitments, “nation-building” strategies, or non-strategic wars abroad that waste countless lives and money on goals that are destined to either fail or make things worse.
— Which isn’t to say that interventionism is out of the question for Biden. He has taken risky moves that could trigger war with China and Russia (which are nuclear powers). For example, the United States has overtly committed to selling Taiwan weapons only to defend itself, but Biden has also slipped and pledged to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. That sort of ambiguity has the potential to create a repeat of Korea in 1950 and the Persian Gulf in 1991 — dragging the U.S. into non-strategic wars. Even worse was Biden’s Dubya-like commitment to induct the countries of Ukraine and Georgia into the already overstretched NATO alliance. These nations, especially Ukraine, are in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and more vital to its security than they are to that of the distant U.S. Admitting Ukraine and Georgia could provoke Russia, which is already unfriendly to begin with.
— On whole, Biden’s foreign policy so far is leagues ahead of the interventionist Bush-Obama era; it remains to be seen if Uncle Joe can stick to this policy.

2. Prosperity/Domestic Policy: Not many people realize this, but on Biden’s watch, the economy has been the best since the Jimmy Carter years. No president during the first year of office (since Carter) comes close to matching Biden’s #1 or #2 rankings (out of the past 8 presidents) in these 9 key measures: (1) GDP (#1, even better than Carter), (2) profit growth (#1, even better than Carter), (3) stock performance (#2, beaten only by Bush Senior), (4) consumer credit (#1), (5) payroll growth (#2, beaten only by Carter), (6) manufacturing jobs (#2, beaten only by Carter), (7) business productivity (#2, beaten only by Carter), (8) dollar appreciation (#2, beaten only by Reagan), (9) stock returns (#2, beaten only by Bush Senior).
— Biden, however, is facing the same perception problem that Jimmy Carter had: massive inflation. As with Carter before, very little of this is Biden’s fault. In his case the inflation mostly stems from the crippled global supply chain due to the Covid pandemic. It’s the job of the Federal Reserve to curb inflation and interest rates, and the Fed has vowed to tighten money policies in 2022. Let’s hope that’s true — and that Biden urges the Fed to keep its word.
— The impressive economy is also hard for voters to appreciate when those numbers are undermined not only by inflation, but by the way Biden is showing signs of repeating the sins of his ex-boss: Obama put health care above the economy (contrary to the public’s priorities, and resulting in a feeble Affordable Health Care Act), and Biden now has his own pet project, “Build Back Better”. Americans need less of that kind of spending program and more viable solutions to inflation and cost-of-living problems. It remains to be seen how this all plays out, and how Biden is willing to hold the Fed to tight money policies. For now, based on his first year, he deserves a high prosperity rating. (I’m dubious that this rating will remain high as the years proceed.)
— Biden has acted well for the environment, appointing solid leaders (including a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator as national climate advisor, a former secretary of state as the special climate envoy, and the first Native American interior secretary), and he wasted no time out of the gate signing climate-related executive orders to undo the damage of the Trump administration. In this too — but to his credit for a change — he is like Obama (who preserved the integrity of the Endangered Species Act only months after Bush torpedoed it), cleaning up the mess of his Republican predecessor.

3. Liberty/Justice: Liberty-wise, Uncle Joe leaves much to be desired. With drugs he’s as bad as he’s always been, doubling down on the drug war, clueless that the remedy to the overdose crisis is legalization, not more criminalization. His thumbs-up to the senate bills for bans on fentanyl anlogs will do nothing to prevent overdose deaths, but will certainly exacerbate racist criminalization practices.
— Biden (like Obama) has minimal use for the 4th Amendment. He urged the courts to uphold warrantless gun confiscation. Thankfully the case (Caniglia v. Strom) went to the Supreme Court which unanimously (9-0) ruled against that. The justices said that the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement does not permit warrantless entry into a person’s home (against what the Biden Administration had urged).
— While Biden isn’t woke (he’s a political centrist), like his ex-boss he is willing to pander to the woke crowd by inserting counterproductive training into military and intelligence operations. For example, Obama irresponsibly ordered a purge of any mention of Islam from counter-terrorism training (blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror), and now Biden has spent 5 million man-hours and a half million dollars on woke training (critical race theory, etc) in the military. An egregious waste of taxpayer dollars (and the number of military members engaged in “alt-right” extremist behavior is miniscule anyway). Biden himself is no woke, to be sure, but he’s willing to score points by pandering to the far left and its inefficient replies to racism.
— Along the same lines, Biden seems gung-ho to replace Justice Stephen Breyer with one of two justices leaning woke: (a) Leondra Kruger, who stunned the conservative and liberal justices equally with her anti-constitutional views on religious liberty when she argued a case before the Supreme Court (she was shot down 9-0; not even the flaming liberal Sotomayor voted in her favor); (b) Ketanji Brown Jackson, who at least seems more promising than Kruger. In any case, Biden’s vow to consider only a black woman for the Supreme Court speaks poorly for him.

In sum, though Biden currently has a terrible approval rating, he’s (so far) better than any other 21st-century president (W Bush, Obama, Trump). As I said, that’s not saying much. But considering what we’ve been used to for a long time, I think we’d do well to look on the bright side.

Peace/Foreign Policy — 13/20
Prosperity/Domestic Policy — 16/20
Liberty/Justice — 8/20

TOTAL SCORE = 37/60 = Average (so far)


Biden in Perspective: The other 21st-century presidents

To put Biden in perspective, here’s how his three predecessors rank below him (for now anyway). They’re all bad. To get halfway decent executives you have to go back to Clinton and then Reagan (though not the Senior Bush), and in my view, the last truly good American president was Jimmy Carter. For the full details on each, click on the hyperlinks. (These summaries come from my rankings of all the presidents.)


2. Barack Obama. Rating: Bad. Obama was George W. the Second, though a slightly improved version of Dubya. Foreign policy wise, Obama repeated Bush’s disasters as if trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. To his credit he killed Bin Laden, but did nothing to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. Domestically, Obama followed Bush’s playbook in using toxic bailout/stimulus relief strategies; and like Dubya printed money to kingdom come. He put health care first and the economy second, contrary to the public’s priorities, and the Affordable Health Care was a mixed bag to say the least. Other Bush-sins include detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. To his credit, Obama stopped torture overseas, refused to suspend habeas corpus, made a couple of moves for gay rights, and did some good things for the environment. But he did nothing to combat the drug war (for a black president in the 21st century that’s a major strike on his liberty record) and nothing to help the middle class, which fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

Peace/Foreign Policy — 3/20
Prosperity/Domestic Policy — 7/20
Liberty/Justice — 9/20

TOTAL SCORE = 19/60 = Bad


3. Donald Trump. Rating: Very bad. Trump gets due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice. He made Obamacare non-mandatory. Those are non-trivial points. But the rest of Trump’s record is abysmal. He gave fake tax cuts (like Reagan and the Younger Bush) without making cuts to federal spending; he supported tariffs, which protect businessmen but not free trade; his Muslim travel suspensions were Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), but they were needless and toothless (not least since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist); his wall along the Mexican border was absurd, and his mass detentions and separating children from their parents was an appallingly inhumane way to handle illegal border crossings; he withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement; he was no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water; he fired the Pandemic Response Team and mismanaged the Covid crisis; he undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas opposed their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump openly flouted the Constitution, by making fastuous appeals to the Constitution itself, which on his reading gave him the right to do whatever he pleased. In the final days of his term, he incited violence, prompting rioters to storm the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. It’s true that this was not an actual attempted coup (the military was not involved), and it was put down swiftly by the Trump administration itself, but a dark stain nonetheless.

Peace/Foreign Policy — 12/20
Prosperity/Domestic Policy — 1/20
Liberty/Justice — 4/20

TOTAL SCORE = 17/60 = Very Bad


4. George W. Bush. Rating: Complete Failure. Aside from Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush has the most catastrophic foreign policy record of any American president in history. He was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them. He was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed the lesser evil of Saddam Hussein. He was responsible for peddling a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, just as it drove the Barbary Pirates in the days of Thomas Jefferson (who unlike Bush knew how to properly smash jihadists). He was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause. The largest antiwar protests in history exploded over the globe. Bush’s domestic policies were just as outrageous. He caused the Great Recession (the worst hit since the Great Depression) and made it worse with bailouts — a horrendous policy on many levels, not least because it encourages more reckless decisions in the future by corporations who feel they can rely on Uncle Sam to save them from extinction. He tyrannically expanded the powers of the presidency, disdaining Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as commander in chief he wasn’t subject to the separation of powers. He claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Most notoriously, he created CIA detention centers overseas, and the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture. He violated the Fourth Amendment with glee. He appointed the worst Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito, who is still the worst and has repeatedly trampled on the First Amendment. There was nothing redeeming to his presidency. Nothing at all.

Peace/Foreign Policy — 0/20
Prosperity/Domestic Policy — 4/20
Liberty/Justice — 0/20

TOTAL SCORE = 4/60 = Complete Failure

The Temple of Elemental Evil: “Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil”

The Temple of Elemental Evil holds an ambiguous reputation among grognards, ranging from great to mediocre. The naysayers feel that it didn’t live up to its potential. I’m not one of them. Even though Frank Mentzer took over from Gary, there’s enough Gary that comes through. This is quite unlike the case of Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which was utterly ruined by Dave Sutherland — though as we will see, both Temple and Queen omitted the same critical feature. In Queen‘s case the omission was disastrous; in Temple it was a missed opportunity. But more on that down below.

To be fair, I can see why the Temple bugs people. As a mega-dungeon it can be a real slog in the hands of a bad DM. But it’s not meant to be treated as a pure dungeon-crawl, with PCs going from one room to the next, slaying bugbear after gnoll after troll. No, this is a module of cold-war politics, involving cults within a cult, all at each others’ throats. If you like huge underground scenarios like that (The Lost City, Caverns of Thracia), then you should enjoy Temple of Elemental Evil.

Consider the four elemental priests. There’s Romag, curate of the Earth cult, determined to become the lead cleric of the whole Temple; Kelno, prefect of the Air cult, nursing bitterness and hatred for the Water and Fire factions, willing to bribe and bargain with anyone to take them down; Belsornig, canon of the Water cult, the most malicious and powerful of the four elemental priests, and currently holding the upper hand; and Alrrem, prefect of the Fire cult, in desperate straits, currently the underdog, though in quasi-denial about it, making arrogant demands on Romag to turn from the Earth and bend the knee to Fire. I run wild with NPCs like this.

Deeper on the fourth level are Barkinar and Deggum, who command the Troops and Guards; also Senshock the Lord Wizard, who thinks he’s above everyone (and with good reason); and Hedrack the Supreme Commander and High Priest, who can hardly enjoy his rank knowing it’s coveted by everyone (the elemental priests, as well as Barkinar).

This factionalism alone elevates the mega-dungeon over the standard hack-and-slash. And here are some other pluses:

1. The “long defeat”. The module extends the theme felt in The Village of Hommlet, as gleaned by James Maliszewski:

“I share with Tolkien the conception of history as a ‘long defeat’ and The Village of Hommlet touches on that theme obliquely — the notion that each generation must stare Evil in the face and bar the way of its advance, even if it’s ultimately just a holding action, for Evil can never truly be defeated in this life.”

That description applies no less to The Temple of Elemental Evil (though Maliszewski isn’t a fan of the Temple), and actually even more so. For look: vanquishing the Temple’s demoness is a foreordained failure. Not in a railroad sense; in this module players have all the agency in the world. It’s just too damn hard to kill Zuggtmoy — 99+% impossible, I’d say, like trying to kill Acererak in Tomb of Horrors. If they insist on trying, they stand a good chance of getting permanently stranded in the Nodes. If they can even locate the Orb of Golden Death, the trick to using it properly (to banish Zuggtmoy to the Abyss and make the Temple collapse into rubble) is all but impossible to figure out. Amusingly, the Goodman’s reincarnated module advises toning things down in order to give players a reasonable chance. I advise against that advice; it misses the whole point. Players are supposed to fail unless they’re exceptionally shrewd.

In fact, they stand a good chance of making things even worse. They could actually liberate Zuggtmoy from her interdicted prison, if they become so determined to break down the four gates in the belief that they’re doing what’s necessary. I put the odds of that outcome at about 50-70% for many players.

Which isn’t to say the PCs can’t do anything positive. They might, for example, succeed in putting down the resurgence of the Temple’s military forces. But that’s just a holding measure, putting off the inevitable day when those forces (yet again) regroup under the demonic power that remains. Hommlet is practically destined to remain under a shadow; it’s just a question of how dark the shadow.

In that sense The Temple of Elemental Evil is like Revelations, Tomb of Horrors, and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun — modules unapologetic in portraying Evil as mightier than Good, and making PCs realize how puny they are regardless of their level.

2. “Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil.” Frank Mentzer may have taken control of the Temple’s design, but he didn’t erase Gary’s influence. The Goodman’s Reincarnated version of the module shows a photocopy of Gygax’s original 1976 write up for the Temple’s setting, which Mentzer used almost word-for-word on pp 27-28 (under the historical notes that players obtain in the village of Hommlet). This is how Gygax described the elemental factions:

“The cult was based on the premise that the elemental forces of the universe are Chaotic and opposed to mankind, and are thus (from a humanocentric viewpoint) Evil. The Temple of the cult sought to destroy all works of Good and to disrupt order. Its members were thieves, assassins, brigands, and the like. Fire was regarded as the first elemental evil, and its penchant for Chaos fitted the premise of the cult. Water was likewise worshiped as an even more powerful force of Chaotic Evil, in the form of floods, storms, and raging seas beating upon the land and ocean vessels. The epitome of Chaotic Evil, however, was regarded as a combination of air and earth, represented by blackness and corresponding with the demonic Abyss. This combination was regarded as a complete negation of matter.

The cult grew powerful and rich, attracting followers of the worst sort and offering them safety within the walls of the Temple stronghold. From this fortress would the followers ride to rob, pillage, and lay waste the lands about, tithing the cult from the spoils of the carnage. Captives from those raids were brought back to the Temple to serve as human sacrifices (children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest Evil) or to slave their lives away in bondage. Besides the extensive upper works of the Temple, a deep labyrinth beneath the place was constructed, but virtually nothing is known about these dungeons except that they were inhabited by a plethora of creatures serving Chaos and Evil. It is rumored that a demon took up abode in the deepest level, to better receive the sacrifices to it.”

It’s great stuff but Mentzer didn’t run with it. He reproduced it and then promptly ignored all the interesting parts (that I bolded). The ranking of the elemental powers and the sacrificial scheme — children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil — never come into play. The prisoner cells of the Water cult (room 228a) contain four elves, one of them a woman. Those of the Fire cult (room 228b) hold three human men, not children. (Those of the Earth and Air cults are empty.) I would alter these occupants to reflect Gygax’s vision: three children in the Fire cult cells, four elvish men in the Water cult cells, and some women in either (or both) of the Earth and Air cult cells.

It’s a weird creepy scheme with a certain logic. If Fire is the weakest force, it makes sense that the cult would target the weakest victims (children). But if Air and Earth (combined) are more powerful than Water, then the implication is that the cult regards women as more powerful than men — or at least more dangerous than men. It’s a misogynist theology, and the Temple is a patriarchal cult after all.

Currently the Water faction has the upper hand, not Earth or Air — as everywhere, power politics don’t necessarily align with theology — though the Fire faction is indeed the weakest. The Earth faction has the most dungeon territory, and Air the least. Each cult, in other words, is distinctive (apart from the obvious elemental differences), and this can be exploited to paint a rich demented atmosphere beyond what’s presented in the encounter areas.

But it’s the one line especially, so criminally ignored by Mentzer, that haunts me: Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest Evil. Who else but Gary could have come up with that?

3. The Lolth connection. Yes, it’s there. It’s not an editorial oversight. The spider goddess Lolth has spies near Hommlet (Lareth) and in the Temple (Farlinth), which means there are a total of seven competing groups in the Temple, just as the module says (on p 29): four serving the Elemental powers, one serving Zuggtmoy (demon queen of fungi, who uses Elemental Evil as a cover for her own expansive purposes), one serving Iuz (demon lord of pain and oppression, loosely allied with Zuggtmoy), and secret spies serving Lolth (demon queen of spiders, who despises Zuggtmoy and the entire nature of the Temple). This has always raised the question as to why Lolth would invest her resources in the Temple, if she has no use for it. The answer — which never made it into Mentzer’s module — is that the Temple is also tied to Lolth’s arch-enemy: the Elder Elemental God.

That sickening Lovecraftian deity — barely even aware of its worshipers aside from the pain/pleasure it receives from blood sacrifice — is never mentioned in the module, but we know that Gygax intended a role for it. In the Oerth Journal he wrote:

“The Elder Elemental God was indeed meant by me to have a place in the very nethermost recesses of the Temple of Elemental Evil. An anomaly there allowed him to manifest a portion of himself.”

Thanks to Joe Bloch, we now have access to that nethermost area. Bloch designed a fifth level for the Temple in Beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil, which is a free downloadable. Room 503 (click on right map) is a shrine to the Elder Elemental God, like the ones found in The Hall of the Fire Giant King and Vault of the Drow. (Something you want to steer clear of, in other words, lest the deity’s Eye appear above the altar and render you insane, age you up to 20 years, fill you with bottomless rage, or simply kill you on the spot.)

It was precisely the anomaly (the altar to the Elder Elemental God) that Zuggtmoy found attractive for the construction of the Temple, as it made possible the creation of the elemental Nodes. As a goddess of fungi she was of course just piggy-backing on Elemental Evil as an efficient way to expand her own sphere of influence… but it worked very nicely for her.

The beauty to this is that The Temple of Elemental Evil now belongs to the G-D-Q series as it was likely intended from the start. It’s the first part of it, fitting like a glove, even level-wise. Characters can go from 1st to 8th level in the mega-dungeon of T1-T4, so that when they emerge they are high-leveled as required by the G, D, and Q adventures. When they take on the giants raids, they will probably be cleaning up their own mess. If they freed Zuggtmoy in the Temple (which as I said, is not at all unlikely), then the sundering of the wards will have also (partially) liberated the Elder Elemental God, who can once again grant his clerics spells (up to mid-level) and magic items to work his perverse will on the prime material plane.

The details of the Elder Elemental God are worked out in Joe Bloch’s two excellent supplements to the G-D-Q series, City of Spiders and Web of Souls. The first is a supplement to the masterpiece Vault of the Drow and the second is a replacement of the abominable Queen of the Demonweb Pits. These modules reveal how the Elder Elemental God can be fully liberated or (as the PCs want) fully imprisoned. They must locate the Final Anomaly, which can be accessed via Lolth’s domain on the 66th layer of the Abyss. But there’s a nasty catch: whoever permanently imprisons the deity does the same thing to him or herself — which is why Lolth can’t do the job, and must manipulate the PCs into the suicidal task.

Reinstating the Elder Elemental God in the Temple (as Gygax had intended) is what finally makes sense of Lolth’s involvement in the Temple, which has always confounded people. Reinstating the deity in Q2, the final confrontation with Lolth (as Gygax had intended in Q1) makes the final showdown with the spider goddess a much more interesting and complex one — and more importantly a believable one. The Elder Elemental God, after all, is the villain of the giants-drow series. Lolth becomes another villain only when the PCs discover that she’s up to something horrible during their quest to take down the Elder Elemental God as they trek through the Abyss.

The upshot: a much maligned module

For all these reasons — the factional intrigue, the epic hopelessness of trying to defeat the Temple’s Evil, the cult’s weird and disturbing theology, and Joe Bloch’s modules which brilliantly tie the T series with G-D-Q series — I’m rather a fan of The Temple of Elemental Evil.

Lolth and the Elder Elemental God: The Big Bads in Web of Souls

Web of Souls had a lot to deliver on. It’s a corrective to Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but I thought the best corrective was to ignore that module rather than to try fixing it. The plotting of the giant-drow series doesn’t require a trip to the Abyss, because Lolth isn’t the menace. The priestess Eclavdra is the one trying to subjugate the upper world — not on orders from Lolth but in service to a rival deity, the Elder Elemental God. Once you deal with Eclavdra and House Eilservs, it’s mission accomplished. Q1 is a non-sequitur. Or at least, that’s one way of looking at it.

The other way is Joe Bloch’s. In his revision Lolth is as much a danger as the Elder Elemental God, and the PCs need to deal with both deities:

“Once on the Abyss, the adventurers should discover that Lolth is planning to invade the Flanaess on an even grander scale than the Eilservs were doing with the giants. This should convince them that stopping her is at least as important as stopping the Elder Elemental God… The overall plot is simple in concept but should be very difficult for the player characters to execute successfully. The PCs must make their way through Lolth’s stronghold, the Web of Souls, not only using the keys in the platinum egg to finally imprison the Elder Elemental God once and for all, but to finally end the threat of Lolth as well, by either getting the two to kill one another, or imprisoning them both.”

This view preserves the Elder Elemental God as the Big Bad, while making Lolth an even Bigger Bad, and has a plot that aligns more with Gary Gygax’s original intentions for Queen of the Demonweb Pits before he was removed from the project.

The Keys of the Platinum Egg

Even in my adolescent days — when I loved Q1 to pieces, and it was (yes, don’t laugh) my favorite module — I couldn’t make sense of the platinum egg. The four keys inside it had nothing to do with imprisoning the Elder Elemental God. They were simply passports to proceed further along the Web, right up to Lolth’s front porch: the iron pyramid triggered the first teleportation room, the silver sphere triggered the second, the bronze star triggered the third, and the crystal cube opened the front doors to Lolth’s spider ship. Why Lolth would do something so crazy as to give the PCs the means to “come get her” on her home plane made no sense at all.

As Bloch notes, Gygax’s intention was to have Lolth use the PCs as pawns against the Elder Elemental God (not herself!) and thus assist her to become more powerful and reclaim the drow factions who no longer worshiped her. In Web of Souls, therefore, Bloch gives the keys proper elemental functions: they’ve been fitted with elemental power gems exactly like those that were used with the Orb of Golden Death in module T1-T4: The Temple of Elemental Evil:

  • the bronze star is the fire key, containing a garnet (bright red) power gem
  • the crystal cube is the water key, containing an aquamarine (blue-green) power gem
  • the iron pyramid is the earth key, containing a carnelian (red-brown) power gem
  • the silver sphere is the air key, containing a smoky quartz (white) power gem

When these four keys are put into the Final Anomaly (the gate to which is found on the Web’s lowest level), the Elder Elemental God will be sealed off from the multiverse. His altars will cease to function and his clerics will lose most of their spells. Which is good news for the PCs (since the source of the giant raids is now definitively gone) and even better news for Lolth (since her rival has been eliminated).

Some might complain that this plot structure copies Temple of Elemental Evil too closely, and indeed that’s part of why Gary Gygax bailed on the project. As he stated in Q1’s preface:

“As this is the last of a series of seven modules, six of which were authored by me, you might well wonder why this one was done by Dave Sutherland. The explanation is simple… As I was reviewing my ideas for Queen of the Demonweb Pits, it suddenly struck me that what I had sketched out was far too similar to another module I was committed to: The Temple of Elemental Evil, the final part of the The Village of Hommlet. Now I was faced with a true dilemma!”

But Gygax should have had the courage of his convictions. None of this is a lazy repeat; it simply continues the plot arc of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Remember, Lolth was an active force in the Temple to begin with. The G-D-Q series should have been the T-G-D-Q series. (It even works that way level-wise. Characters can go from 1st to 8th level in the mega-dungeon of T1-T4, so when they emerge they are high-leveled as required by the G, D, and Q adventures.) Bloch has in fact linked the T modules to the G-D-Q series explicitly in his T5 expansion, Beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil, another freebie worth downloading.

Determining their Mission

That the T series is now linked to the giants-drow series is helpful in another way: the PCs will have some idea what the four keys are for, having already used a set of elemental power gems in the Temple of Elemental Evil — unwittingly to unseal the anomaly underneath the temple, thus partially freeing the Elder Elemental God. Now it’s simply a question of locating the Final Anomaly in Lolth’s Web, where the keys can be used to reverse that process (which they will have learned about in City of Spiders, Bloch’s supplement module to Vault of the Drow), and imprison the Elder Elemental God for good. The PCs are thus basically cleaning up their own mess; it was they who made the giant raids possible. Something should nag at them however. Why can’t Lolth simply use the keys? Why manipulate the PCs into doing the job for her? The answer is that it costs to use these particular keys (unlike the gems in T1-T4). The one who imprisons the Elder Elemental God will also be eternally imprisoned.

Something else should start alarming them as they proceed through the Web. It will become clear that Lolth is planning her own invasion of the prime material — indeed a far more devastating invasion that what the priestess of the Elder Elemental God was organizing with the giant raids. Specifically, there are eight gates found throughout the Web, to the following places:

  • the Maldev Gate (a carry-over from Q1, a former dwarven realm that has been conquered by Lolth’s forces, and the army of which will be used in her conquest of Greyhawk)
  • the Istivin Gate (the capital city of Sterich in Greyhawk, which Lolth plans to invade)
  • the Niole Dra Gate (the capital city of Keoland in Geyhawk, which Lolth plans to invade)
  • the Gorna Gate (the capital city of Geoff in Greyhawk, which Lolth plans to invade)
  • the Nightworld Gate (another carry-over from Q1, the night-world of Vlad the Vampire, who will be assisting Lolth in her invasion of Greyhawk)
  • the Red Dragon Gate (the domain in the Jotens Mountains of Galvanax, a red dragon, whom Lolth will use to rain fire in her invasion of Greyhawk)
  • the Battleplain Gate (a demonic training and staging ground for the upcoming Greyhawk invasion)
  • the Loftwick Gate (the capital city of the Yeomanry in Greyhawk, which Lolth plans to invade)

When the PCs see that half of these gates are to their own world (Greyhawk; click on the map above), it may dawn on them that Lolth has ambitions that make the giant raids seem trivial. The question then becomes how to deal with Lolth (a seemingly impossible task) on top of the Elder Elemental God. The Q2 module does suggest one possible way — killing two birds with one stone, by finding Lolth’s demon amulet and then using it to compel her to use the keys in the platinum egg to imprison the Elder Elemental God. This depends on the PCs somehow learning that anyone who uses the keys to seal away the Elder Elemental God will do the very same to him or herself. The module provides an out on this point: Lolth’s chief advisor is scheming to destroy Lolth and may tell the PCs the cost of using the keys, and where Lolth’s demon amulet is hidden.

If you hate the world of Greyhawk (as I do), then Q2 is adaptable to whatever playground you prefer. I like Mystara (click on the map to the left), and so I would situate the giant fortresses (G1-3) and the underworld of the drow (D3) in the Broken Lands (circled in yellow). Eclavdra would be sending the giants to raid lands in the Republic of Darokin. Lolth, on the other hand, would be planning an all-out invasion of Darokin, the wizard-realm of Glantri, and the elf-kingdom of Alfeim (all circled in red). Glantri and Alfeim are actually prefect targets for her malice, being the realms of mages and elves, respectively. She would do anything to crush and dominate those nations.

Design: The Web and Lolth’s Den

Web of Souls not only rectifies the plot of Q1, it gives Lolth’s abode a proper design. Gone is the ridiculous space-ship and in its place what you’d imagine a demonic plane to be — a place of horror, not cheap sci-fic. There are three levels to Lolth’s Web (the middle is shown below), and Bloch designed the webbing as follows:

“There are three types of webbing… The first are the anchor threads [the black circumference]. These are 30′ wide, and go around the outside of the web as a whole and anchor it to the sides of the Astral vortex. They are round in cross-section, immensely strong, and only a greater deity could sunder them. Doing so would destabilize the entire web and lead to its destruction, and beings of that power are too aloof to even consider such drastic action.

The second are the radius threads [the gray spokes]. These are 20′ in diameter, and go straight from the center of the web to its edges, and are used to connect the web to the anchor threads. They are convex in shape, with a gentle curve and a definite ‘up’ and ‘down’ side; only creatures specifically capable of movement in webs, such as spiders, can travel along the bottom. They are also very strong, and nothing short of a lesser deity could break them. The radius threads are used by Lolth’s minions to move around and to bear captured prisoners back to the Den at the center of the web.

The third are the capture threads [the brown spirals]. These are 10′ in diameter, and are laid out in a double-backing spiral. Like the radius threads, they are convex in cross-section, with an up and a down, and most creatures will travel along the ‘up’ side. They are, as the name implies, used to capture creatures entering the Abyss from the Astral plane.”

Now we’re cooking with gas. That’s a fine realization of the 66th layer of the Abyss, and one that I wish I could have put into play back in the day.


Web of Souls is the alternative to Q1 that we deserve. It papers over confusions and contradictions, and trashes structures that should never have been. It’s the capstone of a campaign that by rights should start in Hommlet, proceed to Nulb, and from the obscene Temple to giant mountain fortresses, then below the world’s surface to the perilous realm of the dark elves. I’d love to play it out.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Module Q2: Web of Souls

Joe Bloch has some exciting news over at Greyhawk Grognard. His long awaited replacement for the classic module Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits is now available as a free downloadable: Q2: Web of Souls:

This is intended as a complete replacement for Q1. It brings the focus back to the Elder Elemental God, which was the original intent of Gary Gygax back in the day, but the module ended up getting written by others who didn’t follow his notes.

The general outline is that the PCs go into Lolth’s stronghold looking to defeat the Elder Elemental God (who was ultimately behind the invasions of the giants into the lands of men), but then realize that Lolth is planning an even more devastating invasion of the Flanaess. They must then find a way to defeat them both.

You might also want to download my adventure D4: City of Spiders. It’s an urban adventure set in Erelhei-Cinlu that helps set up the PCs with the information they need to complete their quest. If you’ve downloaded it before, you should get the latest version; it’s recently been updated with some corrections (thanks to Loren Rosson for pointing out a few things!).

Let’s face it, Queen of the Demonweb Pits failed on every level — design, concept, and premise. The spider-ship was silly (the Abyss is supposed to be a place of horror, not sci-fic) and the plot was backwards given the foundations set in the G and D modules. Bloch has rectified all the problems so that now, 42 years after Q1’s release, old-school DMs can finally run the G-D-Q series by giving it the epic ending it deserves.

Full review to follow later.

Roe and Planned Parenthood: How each justice will vote

Yesterday this site warned against guessing the outcome of the impending abortion case, but I’m going to cast caution into the wind anyway.

According to the site, legal experts are correct in predicting Supreme Court rulings only about 60% of the time, and even statistical models don’t get above 75% accuracy. I find that unpredictability to be a good thing, because it shows that SCOTUS is working as it should — as a constitutional force rather than an ideological one. Some justices are captives of their ideologies from time to time, and some more than others, but as I have learned through my own research, they are all capable of surprises and going against the partisan grain.

The question in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is the constitutionality of the Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The law hasn’t gone into effect, because the lower courts have ruled that it violates Roe v. Wade’s ruling that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy within a certain period. Between 1973-1992, that period was defined as before the third trimester (less than 27 weeks pregnant). Since Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the right has applied to women whose fetus isn’t viable (less than 22-24 weeks pregnant). Mississippi wants to restrict the window down to 15 weeks, and is asking the Supreme Court to overturn both Roe and Planned Parenthood.

If the Supreme Court went so far as to overturn Roe, the results would range from negligible to mighty unpleasant, depending on what state you live in. Click on the map to the right to see how it plays out.

Here are my predictions for each of the justices, in which I assign probabilities that the justice will vote to

  • reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which says that women have a right to abortion services in the pre-viable period, or the first ~24 weeks of pregnancy)
  • scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which says that states cannot enact laws that place substantial obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions in that 24-week period)
  • overturn Roe v. Wade (which guarantees women a constitutional right to an abortion)

1. Clarence Thomas. He’s a good justice. I’ll say that again: a good justice with solid jurisprudence, and capable of siding with liberal justices against the rest of the conservatives in ways you’d never expect — Geier v. American Honda Motor Company (5/22/00), Wyeth v. Levine (3/4/09), Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc. (6/18/15), TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez (6/25/21) all being notable examples. However, when it comes to abortion, his lifelong crusade against Roe doesn’t do his image any favors. He’s an ideologue on this issue. He’s correct that there is no explicit constitutional right to abortion, but there are rights to privacy, liberty, and autonomy. Furthermore, the Ninth Amendment implies that people have other rights besides those mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In the view of many people (myself included), the idea of governmental control over women’s reproductive systems doesn’t align well with the spirit of liberty celebrated by America’s founding fathers. Thomas will have to address all of that if he wants to make a truly persuasive case for overturning Roe. 

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 100% guaranteed
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 100% guaranteed
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 100% guaranteed

2. Samuel Alito. I’m supremely confident that this worst justice on the court will, like Thomas, vote to overturn Roe and return the issue to the states. He rules from the heart (and his heart is clear on this matter) and he believes the legal precedent of Roe is a house of cards. It was as wrongly decided as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (which upheld racial segregation as Constitutional) and Lochner v. New York (1905) (which said there was no limit on how many hours per week employees could be forced to work). Roe v. Wade was a bad decision that should be overturned, pure and simple.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 99%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 99%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 95%

3. Brett Kavanaugh. He has suggested that overturning Roe and returning the issue to the states wouldn’t be harmful, since it would simply make the Court neutral on abortion as it had been prior to 1973. And he’s not impressed with appeals to Roe as a legal precedent. Like Alito, he invokes Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to show how bad rulings are later overturned (in the case of Plessy, it was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (1954)). There’s a difference however between overturning rulings to expand constitutional protections (as overturning Plessy did) and to limit constitutional protections (as overturning Roe would do). There’s no question in my mind that Kavanagh is open to overturning Roe, but it’s conceivable that he might uphold it while narrowing the time period within which women can obtain abortion services.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 95%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 80%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 80%

4. Neil Gorsuch. Don’t forget this Trump-appointed justice is currently the best on the court. He it was who authored the ruling of Bostock v. Clayton County (6/15/20) — decreeing that an employer who fires an individual for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He it was who sided with the liberals against the conservatives, not once, not twice, but three times in defense of the Native American Indians — in Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc. (3/19/19), Herrera v. Wyoming (5/20/19), and in Sharp v. Murphy (7/9/20). I don’t say that simply because I like the results of those rulings (though I do), but because Gorsuch reached those rulings despite whatever ideological reasons might have impelled him to vote the other way. He’s the justice I’ve been waiting for all my life, who adheres to a Scalia-like originalism, but with more integrity than Scalia had on social-justice issues. However, a pro-choice position is not originalist-friendly, and so Gorsuch might see his hands tied. Then again, maybe not. Even originalists tread carefully in overturning precedent when the precedent enjoys wide respect and has been cited favorably in may rulings. During oral argument, Gorsuch was more incisive in his questioning about the viability framework of Planned Parenthood, and especially so of its “undue burden” clause. He may leave open a middle ground that would uphold at least some abortion rights without the protective “undue burden” clause. Of course, without that clause, Roe becomes toothless in states where policies make it difficult to obtain abortions. I’m not sure exactly where Gorsuch is going in this case.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 80%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 90%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 65%

5. Amy Coney Barrett. She’s the one justice I don’t have a firm reading on. She’s too new to the court, hasn’t yet participated in any abortion-issue rulings, and played her cards close to the vest during oral argument. However, she did make a statement during the oral argument that shows her true colors, and rather disturbingly. She said that making abortion illegal would not burden a woman’s ability to participate equally in society, because states have “safe haven laws” that allow women to surrender newborn babies to a medical facility without fear of criminal prosecution. That’s a pretty callous dismissal of all the physical, psychological, and professional burdens that come with pregnancy. I think it likely that Barrett will reject parts of Planned Parenthood, and perhaps even go all in by overturning Roe.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 90%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 85%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 60%

6. Chief Justice John Roberts. This son of a bitch is so hard to predict because half the time he votes out of a solid jurisprudence, while the other half of the time he’s just trying to preserve harmony and a unified image of the court. When he does the latter, he often panders to majority decisions in the most narrow way possible that effectively leaves the issue unresolved. Two examples will suffice: (1) In Fulton v. Philadelphia (6/17/21), the question was whether or not a Catholic adoption agency is within its rights to refuse to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. Instead of taking the case on its own merits — and ruling that non-discriminatory policies still need to make carve-outs for religion and other forms of free expression — Roberts said that Philadelphia’s non-discriminatory policy was not applicable in this particular case, because the city’s policy was not a “neutral policy”, implying that if the city somehow made it a neutral policy, then “maybe” the city could then refuse to work with Catholic Social Services. (2) He did the same thing in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (6/4/18), regarding the baker who refused to make wedding cakes artistically designed for gay couples. Instead of upholding the baker’s rights as a matter of general principle, he argued that the Colorado Commission failed to employ “religious neutrality” in this particular case. Contrast that with Neil Gorsuch’s separate concurrence, which argued that the Commission had failed, pure and simple, to recognize that private business owners cannot be compelled to create a product that they object to on religious or moral grounds (which is indeed what the Commission had already acknowledged in its own treatment of three bakers who refused to bake cakes with anti-gay messages on them). Roberts should have ruled like Gorsuch, and said that business owners cannot be compelled to artistic design, only to provide equal access to their products, but he copped out, leaving the issue unresolved.

On the issue of abortion itself, Roberts has ruled inconsistently in the name of consistency. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (6/27/16), he joined the conservative dissent, maintaining that the Texas law did not impose an undue burden on women seeking abortions. But later, in June Medical Services v. Russo (6/29/20), he joined the liberal majority in saying that Louisiana law did place an undue burden on women seeking abortions. The cases were nearly identical, but his reasoning for the 180 was precisely since they were identical (both cases involved bills that imposed tough restrictions on abortion doctors, regarding admitting privileges at hospitals), the precedent of Whole Woman’s Health should be respected in June Medical Services, even though he himself had objected — and continued to object — to the ruling of the former.

What does this all mean? Hard to say, but he will likely uphold the Mississippi law while keeping some room for abortion rights. It’s doubtful that he will vote to scrap the “undue burden” clause, unless he wants to undermine his rationale for respecting that which he disagreed with in the case of June Medical Services. I suspect he will also uphold Roe along the same lines. But he will most probably reject the viability (24-week) framework of Planned Parenthood while also holding that women have the right to access abortion services in a shorter time frame. However he rules, I’m sure it will be in the interest of placating obscurantism.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 85%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 20%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 15%

7. Stephen Breyer. He will certainly vote to invalidate Mississippi’s law and uphold both Roe and Planned Parenthood. During the oral argument he made clear that Roe was a watershed decision and that the principle of legal precedent requires compelling justifications to overturn Roe, beyond simply that the majority believes Roe to have been wrongly decided. Breyer also wrote for the majority in two cases, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (6/27/16) — ruling that Texas cannot create undue burdens on women who want abortions — and also June Medical Services v. Russo (6/29/20) — which was a nearly identical case, with Louisiana being the offender this time, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges that are difficult to obtain. In these cases Breyer ruled that Texas and Louisiana were making it unreasonably hard for women to get abortions, which is a constitutional right guaranteed by Roe and provisioned for by Planned Parenthood. There is simply no question how Breyer will rule in this case. I’m also confident that he will write for the dissent, since this issue has been “his” and he is retiring at some point this year. His dissent will make a fine parting blow.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 0%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 0%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 0%

8. Sonia Sotomayor. I also have zero doubts about Sotomayor, but more because she tends to be an ideologue.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 0%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 0%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 0%

9. Elena Kagan. Not much doubt here either. Part of me hopes that Kagan will write the dissent, even if Breyer deserves the honor. She has a sharp legal mind and is my second favorite justice on the court.

Reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 4%
Scrap the “undue burden” clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: 0%
Overturn Roe v. Wade: 0%

The Ruling

Roe thus stands a good chance of being overturned by a majority of five: Thomas, Alito, Kavanagh, Gorsuch, Barrett. It depends on whether or not Gorsuch and/or Barrett decide to go all in. If Roe is overturned, either Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito will write for the majority (unless Roberts joins the majority, in which case he may write it, but I think that’s unlikely).

If either Gorsuch or Barrett do not go all in, then Roe will upheld, while a majority of six (Thomas, Alito, Kavanagh, Gorsuch, Barrett, Roberts) in all likelihood reject the viability framework of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and rule that a woman has a right to abortion services within a much shorter period of time after becoming pregnant. A majority of five (the same, minus Roberts) may also do away with Parenthood‘s “undue burden” clause, and if that happens, Roe will effectively be rendered toothless.

In other words, there’s a very good chance that Roe v. Wade will either be overturned or made into a dead letter. In either case, Stephen Breyer will probably be the one to write for the dissent, as the retiring liberal who authored the previous two abortion-issue rulings.

Racist Roleplaying? Ethnocentrism, anxiety, and the depiction of “evil” monsters in D&D

The woke crusade against racism in D&D is finally being put to bed. It was always silly, but it’s nice to have professional research and hard data. The study was done by Chris Ferguson, and he has also written an A+ article on the subject. The highlights:

“The results were interesting and important for this debate. First, playing D&D was not associated with ethnocentrism — being exposed to evil monster races did not tend to make people adopt racist attitudes in real life. This finding undercuts the concern that being exposed to essentialist depictions of some monsters as inherently evil would promote racist attitudes among players. Second, only about 10% of respondents found the depiction of orcs offensive — and their reaction didn’t depend on whether or not they were D&D players, or on whether they were white or people of colour. Thus, concern about portraying orcs as evil is apparently a minority view, even among people of colour. This suggests that the uproar the makers of D&D are facing is not a consensus opinion, but the opinion of a small, vocal minority.

“This research also revealed an interesting nuance. Later in the study, I asked respondents to consider the depiction of orcs again. This time, I asked them more bluntly whether they found the depiction racist, and the percentage who said yes increased to about 34%. (Once again, the respondent’s ethnicity didn’t make a difference). Other research has shown that nearly everyone who finds something racist also finds it offensive. So, what might explain why only 10% agreed that the depiction was offensive but 34% agreed that it was racist? My suspicion is that asking people about racism produces a kind of priming effect. That is, the mere act of asking about racism may make some people assume that the thing you’re asking about must be racist. Because if it weren’t, why would you ask?

“Ultimately, neither result provided support for activists who are demanding changes to the D&D universe. Playing D&D with monster races isn’t generally associated with racism in real life, and there’s no consensus about evil orcs, even among people of colour. It’s not clear that a minority view, no matter how vocal, should dictate the artistic direction of D&D—or anything else in popular culture. Such demands are arguably bullying demands for censorship.

“That said, one might argue that there’s no harm in making these changes… [but] I suspect that there could be harm in making changes that increasingly bubble-wrap these fantasy worlds — particularly in response to some people’s personal, subjective judgements about what is or is not offensive. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the dangers of practicing what the psychologist Pamela Paretsky has called safetyism: research in clinical psychology has established that avoiding what make us anxious tends to increase our anxiety, while cultivating resilience and a sense of humour about minor irritants tends to reduce anxiety. When we shield people from irritants and stressors—and even from downright objectionable things—we actually increase their anxiety.

“Another problem with capitulating to activists’ demands for these changes is that it tends to trap people on the apology treadmill. We know from previous experience that no apology—and no changes to the system—are ever enough to satisfy these activists: they simply respond with ungenerous rejections of the apologies, and then move the goalposts, demanding further apologies. Their outrage seems intended, not to achieve any specific change, but to imbue them with the power that comes with outrage. It’s no wonder that D&D’s recent changes in response to activists’ demands have already been met with demands for more changes. Capitulating to outrage merely invites more outrage. Reward a behaviour and you tend to get more of it: that’s Psychology 101.”

The pdf of Ferguson’s study can be downloaded here.