AntiNote: The following is a conversation Antidote editor Ed Sutton had with security professional and independent game designer Chad Walker, author of the 2016 table-top role-playing game Cryptomancer. His new game, SIGMATA, is due out in July 2018, and is about “ethical insurgency against a fascist regime, taking place in a dystopian version of 1980s America.”
The allegory is fairly up front; minus the cyborgs and temporal displacement, the setting of the game seems (ever so slightly!) reminiscent of the socio-political circumstances we find ourselves in today on Turtle Island. As such, it has the potential to be more than a game: it could also be an organizing tool helping players think strategically and creatively not only about how to fight Nazis but how to navigate the uneasy political alliances that a true popular front would require.
There’s even more to it than that of course; for now we encourage the curious to visit the SIGMATA Kickstarter page (already funded) for a more complete explanation of the game, to keep an eye out for its release, and to give it a shot sometime at your affinity group’s game night. It is sure to provoke some wild conversations, and perhaps some strange epiphanies.
Right now we’re probably incapable, as a society, of forming even a tenuous temporary popular front in the case of extreme emergency. I don’t think we’re there, and I think that’s scary. We can’t even appeal, it seems, to the basic precept that genocide is bad.
Antidote Zine: Chad Walker, thanks for joining us.
You made a humble observation just now, that you “don’t quite know what you’re trying to do” in making this game. So you don’t have the solution, but what is the problem? What is the problem that you feel no better equipped than anyone else to solve? What made you want to write SIGMATA?
Chad Walker: As a classic insufferable liberal, I feel really gross about the public discourse becoming so vile and grotesque—and inhumane—when it comes to people’s struggles. Whether it’s immigrants, or people of color getting killed by police all the time, or transgender people being denied their very existence, the rhetoric from their opposition is so vile—and it’s no longer on the fringes. The vileness is front page.
That really concerns me. But it’s more than all that awfulness. I also think about liberalism’s failure to solve or counter it. Think back to the 2016 election. I forget which of the debates it was, but in one, Hillary Clinton showed up wearing all white, like Gandalf the White. She had come as this avatar, this holy angel of liberalism: super articulate, super smart, super polite, and in a lot of ways, humanitarian, concerned about people, nuanced—she had all these things. On the other side, of course, was the grotesque. The wall of traditional liberalism, with all its nice manners, its Victorian haughtiness, its pearl-clutching—all it does is amplify the grotesque. Suddenly all we can see is the grotesque; suddenly all we’re talking about is the grotesque.
You can’t counter the grotesque with good manners. That’s when I started thinking about the radical. Can the radical be a counter to the grotesque that traditional liberalism cannot? Again, I identify as the type of liberal who most people hate—but I acknowledge that liberalism is an incomplete counter to what we’re dealing with today. So I wanted to explore the radical as an answer.
To do that, I started with what I know—as a technologist, but also as a foreign policy thinker by virtue of my security career and academic discipline. What are some useful frameworks to think about what’s happening in America and abroad? And can any of those frameworks, even though they might have been used for imperialist enterprises throughout history, be subverted in any way to teach us how we can put humans first in some of these struggles?
AZ: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. You have mentioned investigating other ideologies or structures of thought and mining them for information and approaches, for some insight into how they work and what their goals are and what kinds of principles underpin their practices.
Where are you drawing from specifically? Can you give a couple examples of that and what you’ve learned from a specific context or a particular way of looking at things that perhaps you hadn’t investigated before?
CW: The exploring I’ve done of political ideologies and groups has been to mine them for ways to either subvert them, recruit them, or counter-recruit them within the context of the game, where the Resistance consists of disparate factions. I can give some examples of people who I basically hate, ideologically (or who do far more harm than good), but whose interests and motives periodically overlap with that which I love and wish there were more of.
There are religious groups in the US engaged in Underground Railroad-style efforts, harboring and hiding immigrant families so they don’t get split up. In a lazy way, I usually associate religious folk with evangelical, manifestly political pop religion. But there are Christians in America doing radical and definitely illegal work, and I think it’s awesome. If that type of thing can happen, then let’s explore it and amplify it, even just praise it. I understand that we probably don’t agree on a lot of stuff, but if the principle that all humans are your flock is what drives this, count me in. Keep doing it.
Another example (it’s not as dramatic but it challenged me) was when Trump’s business council disintegrated after he said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville. He was elevating Nazis and bringing down the resistance to Nazis, and that sucks. So, good for the business council. Yes, they’re billionaires and vampires and they thrive on oppressive systems, and it’s also really easy to say that what they did was entirely market- and profit-driven. Their calculation was to ensure the most profits for their investors by making a political gesture. I get that. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that they humiliated a president who had said a fascist thing, and distanced themselves from him.
That’s an opportunity. Okay, they’re bastards. But for at least a tiny moment in time, their interests and the interests of many other people aligned. Can we at least acknowledge that that can happen sometimes? Yes, it’s temporary. Yes, it’s ephemeral. But let’s at least call it when we see it.
So those are a couple examples of evaluating groups in a different light. One last thing I would add is that we should actually listen to rivals’ rhetoric. It’s not that their rhetoric is right, but there are insights in their rhetoric. If you talk to any evangelical (any of them!), and ask if they think Christians are persecuted, they would say yes, absolutely. If you talk to anybody who is not an evangelical and ask if they think Christians are persecuted, they’ll say, “What are you talking about? They’re the persecutors. They’re a cult of wealth. They’re a cult of statism.” I could go on.
But let’s look at the important part here. When Trump was running his campaign, he said Christians are persecuted. He might not have said that explicitly, but he indicated he would be supportive of laws that protect Christianity, among other things. And all the Christians were like, “Yeah!” and everybody else was like, “No! They’re the persecutors!” So whose side are they going to go to? What that asshole, that monster, had done was basically to express empathy towards a group, in one of the cheapest and grossest ways, and of course they responded to that empathy. Turns out that’s powerful.
I’m not validating them. In America, in 2018, in real life, I’m not advancing the notion that everyone should agree that Christians are persecuted, as opposed to being persecutors. But I at least want to acknowledge: that’s on their mind, so maybe it should play into how we talk with them. That’s all.
AZ: It sounds to me like you’re talking about exploring ways of building relationships to groups with whom you perhaps in the past have had serious and even existential conflict, or even who you just regard warily. I’m speaking from a radical leftist perspective myself, so when I speak in those vague terms I am thinking of specific things. It’s all on this spectrum between the people who you’d never in a million years work with—they are your fucking adversaries; Nazis, cops, scabs—all the way to coming up against more complicated relationships that make these questions more difficult. Under what circumstances should we work with nonprofit-industrial-complex liberals, for example? It’s a question for a lot of radical outfits whether and how we should work with other groups who don’t entirely share our analysis or practice—or who could even be described as ‘part of the problem,’ depending on how you feel like framing it.
As tricky as it can be, I feel as though part of what you’re trying to do is break down that difficulty. It seems like your hope is to give people tools and strategies for interacting with folks they don’t identify with—on a personal or an organizational level as well as an international level, even. And strangely, this seems to be the source of pushback you’ve gotten so far, from people who have read your Kickstarter and objected to it for various reasons: finding it, for example, implausible that this or that group would (or should) work with that group.
Where are some of those divides, and what’s wrong with sticking to principles?
CW: Let’s definitely talk about the work of trying to ease relationships or build solidarity among adversarial groups. But I have to start with a caveat. I am not interested in singing Kumbaya and hugging everyone. There are still some people I would rather hug until they stop breathing. I talk about breaking bread with all kinds of motherfuckers—but sometimes you don’t.
There are all these efforts to humanize Nazis in the US. We humanize them by talking about how they shop at the same grocery store we do. In a way, we are also humanizing them when we say they’re a bunch of rubes in the country who spend their mom’s money to buy uniforms and play dress-up. We humanize them when we make fun of them. But the reality is, in my opinion, that they’re the most powerful political group in America: with all the organizations and all the advocacy groups that had to compromise on things they believe in order to put Trump in power (who in most cases gave up almost everything to get a little thing), the only group that did not have to compromise on anything was the Nazis.
All groups are diverse and have their own internal struggles, and depending on who’s popular and who’s in charge, those groups could either lean towards more humanitarian and revolutionary impulses or towards their own authoritarian and counterrevolutionary impulses.
They’re getting everything they want, whether it’s walls or forced demographic changes; this entire country is aligning in practice to a white supremacist utopian vision. Nazis gave nothing and they sacrificed nothing, and they’re getting everything. Meanwhile, the evangelicals are basically selling their souls to get a supreme court justice. There are businesspeople who don’t even know how to invest anymore, because whether it’s tariffs or other crazy shit, they don’t know how to do business under Trump. All these different groups are uncomfortable, but they sacrificed something to get something else—with the exception of the Nazis, the most powerful political group in America.
So I don’t humanize them. I’m calling them out as the threat they are, and I think Nazi-punching is insufficiently militant.
On the next step up from that, I would say there are a lot of groups who you should only work together with in the case of an extreme emergency. One of the conceits of the game, of course, is that it is an extreme emergency. A genocidal white nationalist government has set up a homeland-oriented occupation to carry out what Nazis want them to. It’s an extreme emergency.
When you’re dealing with an extreme emergency, it’s more of a temporary alliance: we’re going to go back to hating each other as soon as we solve this. It is not about us all getting along. There is no utopia, there is no Kumbaya. But at bare minimum we need some kind of dialogue, because we might need bridges in the case of extreme emergency.
Right now we’re probably incapable, as a society, of forming even a tenuous temporary popular front in the case of extreme emergency. I don’t think we’re there, and I think that’s scary. We can’t even appeal, it seems, to the basic precept that genocide is bad. Deep in our hearts that’s not the case, but we’re so repulsed by those we don’t align with at a 99% interval, politically, that we can’t even fathom the idea of coming together no matter what when the chips are down.
To your point about people who are struggling with this: just to give an example, I have been accused of being an Ayn Rand fanboy because the game’s Resistance features entrepreneurs who aren’t getting their way. They join the Resistance because they want to make sure that capitalism survives a failed state—but the idea of even a temporary alliance with these people in order to oust Nazis? Can’t be done.
I’ve also been called a centrist. The word centrist gets spat like a racial slur these days, it’s said with that type of hatred—and I get that. A centrist is someone who (even though they’ll deny it) will ultimately side with the status quo, and therefore they side with power, and therefore they’re as regressive as possible. This is where I remind folks this is a fantasy game. Can we imagine a fantasy space where we get along? “I can’t imagine a rural, gun-centric, quasi-libertarian group working with anarchists and communists! It would never happen! By the way, I will not challenge the game’s conceit that there are radio-powered cyborg revolutionaries.”
Come on, folks. Meet me halfway. You’re totally fine with the cyborgs, but there’s no way that libertarians would break bread with communists, and to propose that makes me a centrist?
AZ: Just because of our current location in the Twin Cities, I wanted to refer to the famous St. Paul Principles, from the protest movement against the Republican National Convention here in 2008.
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption, and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.
So this is something that people on the radical left are appealing for already. What do you think it is that prevents folks from having the minimum imagination required to give this idea—of, for example, libertarians working together with communists—the benefit of the doubt? Is it a failure to imagine the emergency situation that would require that?
CW: If someone starts a conversation by saying, “You know what’s wrong with socialists?” what a leftist would probably think right away is, “Which socialists?” When I say it, or when an outsider or somebody rightwing says it, they’re talking about a monolithic group that represents all of the left. Needless to say there is no such thing. I was talking earlier about these Christian groups that are hiding immigrants and protecting people. Generalizing, saying all Christians, all communists, all libertarians—that’s a natural bigotry and laziness we all have.
In my work, I am explicit about how these groups that have sided with the Resistance don’t represent one hundred percent of the entire zeitgeist of libertarianism or of “entrepreneurs” (to be nice and not call them robber barons), or all Christians, or all leftists. I’m acknowledging that those groups are diverse and have their own internal struggles, and depending on who’s popular and who’s in charge, those groups could either lean towards more humanitarian and revolutionary impulses or towards their own authoritarian and counterrevolutionary impulses.
Not acknowledging the diversity of these groups, throwing them all into these monolithic buckets, displays a profound lack of imagination in itself.
AZ: Related to that: you’ve been in contact with a diverse cadre of folks from whom you’ve been drawing information and having conversations about some of the issues and topics that you’re grappling with in the game (people should thank you; you’re doing the work organizers should be doing, actually talking to people).
What did these folks tell you, where were they from, and how did you develop these relationships? How did these conversations come about?
CW: My go-to leftwing anarchist has been you. You have experiences and perspectives that I would never have—not just your work in getting voices out to people or your translations bringing stuff across the pond for a larger audience, or your actual mutual-aid efforts, going to fucked up places. That’s been a really helpful perspective, but there were other things you were able to help me articulate cogently, like the idea that on the left we have some trouble—we are vulnerable to some things. We’re capable of some bad stuff, and we have to call it out and acknowledge it so we can address it. You helped me see—particularly in the realm of Assad apologism and red-brownism and the true violence behind some anti-imperialism—the cognitive dissonance in being “antiwar” but doing nothing while people are being eradicated.
Another buddy of mine who was instrumental in helping me see the humanity of other groups was a person who is for all intents and purposes an evangelical libertarian. Politically we see eye to eye on virtually nothing, but he talked about wanting to help people in his community—he’s really interested in teaching self-confidence and survival skills to young men in particular. The way he has engaged with his community is really inspiring. He’s like, “These are my people; we’re kind of messed up, but this is the flock I’m part of.” He’s also a legitimate insurgency/war fighter. He served in some messed up places doing psy-ops, so he was able to articulate some of that.
All we’re doing when we start throwing around the ‘T word’ stupidly is giving a high-five to those in power and saying, “Yeah! Let these people be massacred!”
He was also able to help articulate some of the social, behavioral, and group dynamics within forces, things that he witnessed in the military. I could explore questions like, “Okay, you were ordered to do this horrible thing, what do you do?” Or better yet, where he gave me the most insight: I asked him, “If you had to order people under you to do horrible things, how would you do it?” and he was able to break down exactly the approach. Number one, you determine who in your squad has the moral flexibility you need to even start a conversation. Number two, you represent illegal missions as “prestige” missions. Number three, you appeal to the idea that it’s going to happen anyway, so it may as well be you, because you’ll do it more humanely than that other guy. There was good stuff, too, it wasn’t always super dark. But those kinds of insights were amazing.
Lastly I had some help getting the framework for the game validated by people who (without going into too much detail) are legitimate COIN [counterinsurgency] thinkers, COIN planners, COIN trainers. Let’s say you work for the state department and you need to learn about complexity, and you need someone to teach you everything about how stuff works—I may have have gotten some input from those people.
AZ: Related to that, something that you’ve also mentioned that you’ve learned from some of these conversations is the inverse of the picture that we all have, and that you just articulated, of the US state security apparatus, or the “deep state,” or whatever you want to call it: that they have all these high-powered specialists who really fucking know what they’re doing. At the same time, I’ve heard you say that there is no “deep state.”
What motivates this question is: can you put tankies’ minds at ease that not everything that happens around the world is a CIA plot?
CW: I spoke with someone in an organization (and they’re not entry-level, let’s put it that way, without going into detail) after Trump decided to shit all over his organization all the time. I asked him how he felt about everything that was going on. His answer was, “Dude, as long as he doesn’t fuck with my pension, I don’t care.”
These are analysts and bureaucrats who make less than the folks in the private sector do; they’re worried about their pension. They’re pissed off that a bunch of contractors generally make more than they do. Just like anyone at any large corporation, they’re sick of the bureaucracy; they’re so sick of it they want to throw up and leave, but the bennies are good enough to stick it out for another fifteen years.
I’ve just described virtually everybody in the national security community, as far as I’ve witnessed and judging from the candid conversations I’ve had. At the end of the day, they’re workers. I hate to say that, but they’re fucking workers. That’s it. It is so banal. If you ever sit down and talk to someone in the national security community about work, it’s going to be like talking to the dude who works at Subway. It’s going to be the same conversation. It’s so boring.
AZ: Yet there are narratives pushed by the national security community that seem to have real power, and through repetition over time really do seem to be able to shape not just public opinion but actual events.
CW: When we think about history we frequently think about revolutions. We live in a country that was founded on armed insurrection—of course it was also founded on genocide and a colonial project. But insurrection (or more specifically, insurgency) is part of the story. Nevertheless, when I say the word “insurgency,” what people immediately think of is Al Qaeda during Iraq (“insurgents are brown people on the other side of the Earth who are bad”) as opposed to thinking agnostically about how an insurgency is some type of people’s movement; it could be good or it could be bad or it could be both.
But insurgency is up against a power—maybe an illegitimate power, maybe an occupier—and it’s an asymmetric battle of a people’s movement versus a state. And the state is given all these permissions to do all kinds of crazy-ass violence because they are a state. Because these dudes wear uniforms they can commit murder. But these other guys: they don’t wear uniforms, so they can’t commit murder.
In terms of how we talk about these things, I think it’s important to humanize insurgency movements. I’m not saying we always need to root for the insurgent, because sometimes they might be worse than the status quo. But what we can’t do is automatically dismiss a people’s movement just because somebody says the T word, terrorism. Obviously, a state is always going to call the adversary a terrorist so that the rest of us turn off our brains entirely.
The game’s emphasis is on humanizing an insurgency and talking about it in a strategic framework—a disinterested framework, an agnostic framework—as opposed to glorifying it or vilifying it. That’s one of the lessons I want people to take away, so when they see this shit on the news and somebody says the T word, they’ll think, “Okay, someone just said terrorist, so I’d better think critically about what’s happening here. What are they trying to get me to do? Chances are, they’re trying to get me to side with the state.”
AZ: This is what’s so frustrating about the lack of imagination when it comes to how an insurgency actually works, and when it comes to these uncomfortable alliances, when X forming a temporary allegiance with Y will just “never fucking happen.”
Like we’ve talked about so much in the past, using Syria as a primary example: that’s a place where rebellious, nonviolent pro-democracy activists were confronted with these questions, and they navigated them in all kinds of different ways. So it’s not just a failure of imagination, it’s a failure of perception of something that is happening right now, for the last seven years. Sure, half a world away, but it’s also the most documented conflict in the history of the world. So we can observe how a liberal democrat and a communist atheist might work together, to give an easy example, and to see how both of those people at some point might find themselves making nice with or even signing up with a fundamentalist religious militia, because they’re the ones with the fucking guns. We could observe the myriad causes and consequences of that, and use that to inform our own strategic judgments. But we don’t.
There’s also something I want to observe about your comment on the T word and how it should be regarded with extreme skepticism: for the longest time—and again, speaking from and of the Western left—it was. During the Bush years, the outset of the War on Terror, all this stuff was so obvious; the world Orwellian was in the air then, too, the way it is now. People were extremely skeptical of that word. Why has that changed? How come we were skeptical of it and then became comfortable with it somehow?
If you look at the early 2000s, there was the Iraq war of course, and there was also the second Chechen war, where the same language was being deployed…and basically believed. These two things were happening side-by-side at the same time, and then at some point the skeptical discourse about the War on Terror being total bullshit somehow receded, and it’s been hypernormalized, and even people on the left are using the T word to talk about people in Syria. How did that happen?
CW: States either want to do war, or they don’t want to do war. States that want to do war say, “We need to kill these terrorists.” States that don’t want to do war say, “We can’t go defend these terrorists.” So it’s a lazy-ass shortcut. But at the end of the day, either way this narrative supports the state’s wishes. That’s all we’re doing when we start throwing around the T word stupidly. We’re giving a high-five to those in power, and saying, “Yeah! Let these people be massacred! We’re not actually really into democracy. We’re not actually really into human rights.” So, fist-bump, state! Thanks, state! When people want to high-five the state when it comes to the application of violence, that’s scary to me.
It gives us an easy out, too. Now we can feel good, we can go home and sleep at night while there are people being massacred by straight-up fascists. We can still sleep at night, because one of them said “Allahu akbar” while fighting back.
AZ: Or when they stood on their balcony and watched a bomb fall on a neighborhood nearby and said “Allahu akbar” because it’s basically the same as saying “Oh my god.” It’s the most mundane shit. Why are they saying that in all these videos? Must be terrorists.
I think you’re right that empathy is the only way that kind of thing is ever going to turn around, and I appreciate your efforts in trying to foreground that way of thinking, trying to humanize people, and reminding folks that people are human.
CW: But no quarter for Nazis.
Featured image: art from SIGMATA by Ario Murti