It’s been well over a month since I last played Magic with someone other than my partner Dana. That may be a conservative estimate; between a new job and my escalating social anxiety, I can’t actually remember the last time I met up with friends. The last time I did get together with a group of other people it was to play a RPG, and even that’s a biweekly adventure at best.


While time has certainly been a factor, the bigger factor has definitely been my social anxiety, which is a little weird for me. When acting in the scope of my authority I have no fears. But inject a social element, like drinks after work or playing Commander with strangers, and I freeze up. My mind spends all its time calculating the lines of play for the interaction, and that leaves precious little room for anything else.


And the truth is that those calculations have gotten darker in the last year. As a culture we’re in the middle of a backlash. People noticed the push for respect and equality and are fighting back on all fronts. The fiasco facing the Hugo Awards are the latest front in a battle between people who want positive change, and between people who want to remain the beneficiaries of the calcified power structures that they think they’re entitled to.


The greatest irony of my lifetime has been to see the lessons of 1984 proven true. If a person is angry about “entitlements,” it’s because they themselves feel entitled. “Right to work” means the right for your employer to fire you on a whim, and the man going on the news to whine about diplomacy is doing his damnedest to spark a nuclear war.


And that’s without mentioning the presence of Big Brother, who has intentionally been hoovering up our personal information for the last decade in the name of the War on Drugs.


But the collapse of our democracy into some potemkin village isn’t the biggest reason I’ve been avoiding crowds for the last year. No, it’s what that collapse means for public discourse that has me spooked. See, I am utterly unwilling to subject myself to uninformed dissent at this point in my life. I spend my days working for a nonprofit that directly serves youth being railroaded by the judicial system, and I’ve seen the concrete effect of these policies on the vulnerable among us, when they are not subjected to summary execution by some wannabe Judge Dredd. I can’t unsee that. And I can’t stay silent when someone regurgitates right-wing or libertarian lunacy at me.


Black lives matter, and cops have killed more civilians than terrorists.


Gamergate and its corollaries have emboldened these people to express their toxic views. There are few things that delight the right more than pissing off liberals, because these people have no shred of empathy for difference. Where you and I see a broad world full of fascinating chaos, the reactive right sees an affront to their worldview. If they hate the rest of us enough, if they can drive enough of us to suicide (because even they recognize that calling for death camps would be a bridge too far), then they can make us disappear, and the world will fit back into its nice, orderly boxes.


I don’t disappear good. I’m a fat trans queer woman, with a religious, moral, and ethical system that is sadly outside the modern norm. When I hear people complaining about poor people on food stamps buying caviar and steak, I hear the recycled lie that’s been plaguing food assistance from the start. When I hear people talking about drug addicts getting paid by the government to do drugs, I hear the statistics that have shown time and time again that this too is a lie. And when I hear about how the poor are lazy and unmotivated, I hear about the collapse of the median income in this country, and the way in which wages and productivity have become disentangled since voodoo economics first took effect.


The Fight for $15 campaign protested yesterday, and I wish them the best of luck in their fight for a living wage.


But it’s not just hearing the truth drown in a fountain of lies and bile that gets to me. Equally troubling is the fact that these people imply a causation where there is not one. Whether or not we have government assistance for poor people, the poor will exist. The problem is systemic, and the people at the bottom are trying to get by just like you and me.


And you and me are probably getting along fine. Because we play Magic: the Gathering, a collectible card game that requires huge financial outlays to play at a competitive level. Now, that’s not true of Commander, which is one of the reasons I love the format so, but this does point to a certain type of blindness that invariably leaks out when we look at the rest of the world from our pedestal.


Take, for instance, the recent post by Gaby Spartz talking about getting more women into Magic. On the whole I liked it, although I think she doesn’t go nearly far enough with her final point about Pro Tour role models (personally, I think WotC should offer a $20k bonus to any team that gets a woman into the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, as well as put at least two women on the coverage team, but that’s a different issue). No, the thing that bothered me about the article was the second point, the one focused on player hygiene. The one you always hear.


Beyond the gendered implications of women being easier to offend through sense of smell, which… whatever, there’s a hidden element of classism lurking in that opinion, no matter who is putting it forth. Hygeine requires time and money. It’s easier for a person who’s staying in a luxury hotel to get clean before a tournament than it is for the kid who is couchsurfing with a bunch of his (or her, but mostly his) friends. It’s not just access that’s expensive, though; deodorant costs money, soap costs money, clean clothes cost money. A lot of people look at the up front costs for these objects and see them as being so minor as to be expected, but a) not everyone is dealing from the same financial situation you are, and b) there are other, hidden costs, particularly when you add in traveling.


And that’s without getting into the context surrounding weight, which is the unspoken companion attack from anyone who hyper-focuses on another human’s odor.


When I was in college I saw Salman Rushdie speak. I wasn’t big on those types of lectures, but he piqued my interest, and I’m glad I went out of the way to see him. He made one point that will stay with me until the day I die: “no one was ever killed in the name of dirt.” He had been talking about how people use the language of cleansing and purity to defend their heartless attacks on others, and his position was basically that if we could all get a little more comfortable with the dirt, the world would be a much better place.


Most of the people I know personally are clued into these issues. I feel like, specific to the community cultivated in Brooklyn and the Hipsters of the Coast Magic team, the average player I interact with has a fairly well developed sense of the context we’re facing. All the socio-economic factors that so often go unobserved by others. But even my relatively safe bubble will occasionally break out into fat-person-eliminationist rhetoric, or use misogynistic terminology without meaning to, or otherwise trigger a conversation I didn’t necessarily want to have about the full implications of what’s being said. If this type of thing crops up in my safe space, how am I to feel comfortable in mixed company? People are more comfortable than ever trumpeting their “politically incorrect” views.


Bill Maher, decrying “political correctness,” uses his theoretic liberalism to cover for a particularly nasty bit of anti-Islamic racism he’s stoking in the atheist community.


And remember, so-called “political correctness” is just about respecting other peoples’ basic identities and trusting people to know their own life situations better than some privileged outsider ever could.


I still love the game. I like building Commander decks, even if I never get to play with them. I like watching coverage of high-level play. I like the way you can see the possible outcomes winnow down, until one player finds their game dead on the vine, while his or her opponent reaps the rewards of their tight play. I like the friendships I have made and the people who I reach.


But there’s an ugliness growing in our game. I can’t blind myself to that basic truth. And, when faced with a 20% chance of a negative interaction in a Magic space versus a 0% chance of a negative interaction at home watching Daredevil or playing Borderlands, I know which one I’m going to pick.


So I write, and I get my fix through this outlet. It’s been meeting my need, but I’d rather feel confident that I can go to a tournament and have recourse should someone use my identity, or the lives of the people I work to help, as a bludgeon against me.


But that may be a pipe dream.


Jess Stirba has had a fair number of pipe dreams over the years.


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