Wednesday, April 13, 2016

American Narratives: The Rescue Game

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, with its analysis of the way that affluent white liberals use accusations of racism as a dog whistle for their own bigotry toward wage-earning Americans, got a flurry of emails and attempted comments trying to push the discussion back into the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. That came as no surprise, at least to me. Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse on any controversial subject, and trying to get past the narrow confines of any such narrative inevitably brings some form of pushback.

Depending on the society and the era, the pushback can quite readily include such entertainments as being burnt at the stake for heresy, so I don’t feel any need to complain about the really rather mild response I got. At the same time, though, I don’t propose to back down. Every society, as just noted, has a set of narratives that confine discourse on controversial subjects to approved channels, but tolerably often those approved channels exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. In today’s United States, in particular, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories; the facts that matter most belong to the other.

Thus one of the things I plan on doing over the months ahead is talking about some of the narratives that keep most people in today’s America from discussing, or for that matter noticing, the most crucial forces dragging this country down to ruin. Such an examination could as well start with any of those narratives—as Charles Fort pointed out, one traces a circle starting anywhere—but given the response to last week’s post, we might as well start with the accepted narrative about race.

It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe. If you want to hear about the realities of racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice in the United States, you need to talk to the people of color who have to deal with those things day in and day out, not to a middle-aged white intellectual like me, who’s by and large been sheltered from that dimension of the American experience. People of color, on the other hand, have had very little influence on the officially approved narrative of race in the United States.  Like most of the narratives that shape our collective discourse, that’s been crafted primarily by middle-aged white intellectuals with college educations and salary-class backgrounds: that is, people like me. If I sing you some of the songs of my people, in other words, I hope you won’t mind.

I’m going to approach the opening notes of this first song by what may seem like a roundabout route. There’s a school of psychology called transactional analysis, which focuses on interactions between people rather than the vagaries of the individual psyche. Transactional analysis covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on just one of its themes here: the theory of interpersonal games.

An interpersonal game, like most other games, has a set of rules and some kind of prizes for winners. In a healthy interpersonal game, the rules and the prizes are overt: that is, if you ask the players what they are, you can pretty much count on an honest answer. As this stops being true—as more of the rules and prizes become covert—the game becomes more and more dysfunctional. At the far end of the spectrum are those wholly dysfunctional games in which straight talk about the rules and payoffs is utterly taboo.

The accepted mainstream narrative about race in America today can best be described as one of those latter category of wholly dysfunctional games. Fortunately, it’s a game that was explored in quite a bit of detail by transactional analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, so it won’t be particularly difficult to break the taboo and speak about the unspeakable. Its name?  The Rescue Game.

Here’s how it works. Each group of players is assigned one of three roles: Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The first two roles are allowed one move each: the Victim’s move is to suffer, and the Persecutor’s move is to make the Victim suffer. The Rescuer is allowed two moves: to sympathize with the Victim and to punish the Persecutor. No other moves are allowed, and no player is allowed to make a move that belongs to a different role.

That may seem unduly limited. It’s not, because when a group of people is assigned a role, all their actions are redefined as the move or moves allotted to that role.  In the Rescue Game, in other words, whatever a Victim does must be interpreted as a cry of pain. Whatever a Persecutor does is treated as something that’s intended to cause pain to a Victim, and whatever a Rescuer does, by definition, either expresses sympathy for a Victim or inflicts well-deserved punishment on a Persecutor. This is true even when the actions performed by the three people in question happen to be identical. In a well-played Rescue Game, quite a bit of ingenuity can go into assigning every action its proper meaning as a move.

What’s more, the roles are collective, not individual. Each Victim is equal to every other Victim, and is expected to feel and resent all the suffering ever inflicted on every other Victim in the same game. Each Persecutor is equal to every other Persecutor, and so is personally to blame for every suffering inflicted by every other Persecutor in the same game. Each Rescuer, in turn, is equal to every other Rescuer, and so may take personal credit for the actions of every other Rescuer in the same game. This allows the range of potential moves to expand to infinity without ever leaving the narrow confines of the game.

There’s one other rule: the game must go on forever. The Victim must continue to suffer, the Persecutor must continue to persecute, and the Rescuer must continue to sympathize and punish. Anything that might end the game—for example, any actual change in the condition of the Victim, or any actual change in the behavior of the Persecutor—is therefore out of bounds. The Rescuer also functions as a referee, and so it’s primarily his or her job to see that nothing gets in the way of the continuation of the game, but all players are expected to help out if that should be necessary.

Got it? Now we’ll go to an example—and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. The example I have in mind is the standard narrative of race in the deep South for the century or so after the Civil War.

The players were rich white people, poor white people, and black people—this latter category, in the jargon of the time, included anyone with any publicly admitted trace of African ancestry.  The roles were assigned as follows: poor white people were Victims, black people were Persecutors, and rich white people were Rescuers. The rest of the game followed from there.

Anything that poor white people did to black people was thus justified, under the rules of the game, as a cry of pain elicited by their suffering at the hands of Yankees, carpetbaggers, former slaves, etc., etc. etc.  Anything rich white people did to black people was justified by their assigned role as Rescuers. Meanwhile, anything and everything that was done, or not done, by black people was defined as a persecution—if black people pursued an education, for example, they were trying to steal jobs from white folk, while if they didn’t, that just proved that they were an inferior element corrupting the South by their very presence, and so on through all the classic doublebinds of bigotry.

A variant of that game still goes on in the pseudoconservative end of American politics. When Hillary Clinton went out of her way to characterize African-American youth as “superpredators” not that many years ago, she was playing a version of that same game, in which law-abiding white citizens were the Victims, black youth were the Persecutors, and white politicians were the Rescuers. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, the roles are reversed; in games played on that field, people of color are the Victims, working class white people are the Persecutors, and affluent white liberals are the Rescuers. The players have changed places but the game’s otherwise identical.

Yes, I’m aware that people of color on the one hand, and working class white people on the other, occupy radically different places in the hierarchy of privilege in today’s America. More precisely, members of each of these heterogeneous groups occupy a range of sharply differing positions in that hierarchy, and these two ranges have very little overlap. What’s come to be called intersectionality—the way that social divisions according to gender, race, class, ethnicity, physical disability, and a bubbling cauldron of other factors, intersect with one another to produce the convoluted landscape of American inequality—is a massive factor all through contemporary life in the United States. So is the wretchedly common human habit of “paying it downwards,” in which an abused and exploited group responds by seeking some other group to abuse and exploit in turn.

All these considerations, though, belong to the real world. They are excluded from the artificial world of the Rescue Game, and from the officially approved narrative about race that derives from that game. In the Rescue Game, all members of the group assigned the role of Victim are always, only, and equally Victims, all members of the group assigned the role of Persecutor are always, only, and equally Persecutors, and the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors is the only thing that matters. If anyone tries to bring anyone else’s treatment of anyone else into the game, it’s either dismissed as an irrelevance or denounced as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distract attention from the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors.

The assignment of roles to different categories of people takes place in the opening phase of the Rescue Game. Like most games, this one has an opening phase, a middle period of play, and an endgame, and the opening phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this initial phase, teams of Victims bid for the attention of Rescuers by displaying their suffering and denouncing their Persecutors, and the winners are those who attract enough Rescuers to make up a full team. In today’s America, this phase of the game is ongoing, and a great deal of rivalry tends to spring up between teams of Victims who compete for the attention of the same Rescuers. When that rivalry breaks out into open hostilities, as it often does, the result has been called the Oppression Olympics—the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred struggle over which group of people gets to have its sufferings privileged over everyone else’s.

Once the roles have been assigned and an adequate team of Rescuers attracted, the game moves into its central phase, which is called “Show Trial.” This has two requirements, which are not always met. The first is an audience willing to applaud the Victims, shout catcalls at the Persecutors, and cheer for the Rescuers on cue. The second is a supply of Persecutors who can be convinced or coerced into showing up to play the game. A Rescue Game in which the Persecutors don’t show quickly enters the endgame, with disadvantages that will be described shortly, and so getting the Persecutors to appear is crucial.

This can be done in several ways. If the game is being played with live ammunition—for example, Stalin’s Russia or the deep South after the Civil War—people who have been assigned the role of Persecutors can simply be rounded up at gunpoint and forced to participate. If the people playing the game have some less drastic form of institutional power—for example, in American universities today—participation in the game can be enforced by incentives such as curriculum requirements. Lacking these options, the usual strategies these days are to invite the Persecutors to a supposedly honest dialogue, on the one hand, and to taunt them until they show up to defend themselves, on the other.

However their presence is arranged, once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and the Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence, using whatever means are allowed by local law and custom. If the game is being played with live ammunition, each round ends with the messy death of one or more Persecutors; the surviving players take a break of varying length, and then the next Persecutor or group of Persecutors is brought in. In less gory forms of the game, the Persecutors are shouted down rather than shot down, but the emotional tone is much the same.

This phase of the game continues until there are no more Persecutors willing or able to act out their assigned role, or until the audience gets bored and wanders away. At this point the action shifts to the endgame, which is called “Circular Firing Squad.” In this final phase of the game, the need for a steady supply of Persecutors is met by identifying individual Victims or Rescuers as covert Persecutors. Since players thus accused typically try to defend themselves against the accusation, the game can go on as before—the Victims bring their accusations, the newly identified Persecutors defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully them into silence.

The one difficulty with this phase is that each round of the game diminishes the supply of players and makes continuing the game harder and harder. Toward the end, in order to keep the game going, the players commonly make heroic attempts to convince or coerce more people into joining the game, so that they can be “outed” as Persecutors, and the range of things used to identify covert Persecutors can become impressively baroque.  The difficulty, of course, is that very few people are interested in playing a game in which the only role open to them is being accused of violating a code of rules that becomes steadily more subtle, elaborate, and covert with each round of the game, and getting bullied into silence thereafter. Once word gets out, as a result, the game usually grinds to a halt in short order due to a shortage of players. At that point, it’s back to “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” and on we go.

There’s plenty more that could be said here about the details of the Rescue Game and the narrative of race derived from it, but at this point I’d like to consider three broader issues. The first is the relation between the game and the narrative, on the one hand, and the realities of racism in today’s America. I don’t doubt that some readers of this essay will insist that by questioning the narrative, I’m trying to erase the reality.  Not so. Racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice are pervasive factors in American life today.  The fact that the approved narrative of race in today’s America is deceptive and dysfunctional doesn’t make racism any less real; on the other hand, the fact that American racism is a stark reality doesn’t make the narrative any less deceptive and dysfunctional.

The second issue I’d like to consider is whether the same game is played on other playing fields, and the answer is yes. I first encountered the concept of the Rescue Game, in fact, by way of a pamphlet lent to my wife by her therapist sister-in-law, which used it as the basis for an edgy analysis of class conflicts within the lesbian community. From there to the literature on transactional analysis was a short step, and of course it didn’t hurt that I lived in Seattle in those years, where every conceivable form of the Rescue Game could be found in full swing. (The most lively games of “Circular Firing Squad” in town were in the Marxist splinter parties, which I followed via their monthly newspapers; the sheer wallowing in ideological minutiae that went into identifying this or that party member as a deviationist would have impressed the stuffing out of medieval scholastic theologians.)

With impressive inevitability, in fact, every question concerning privilege in today’s America gets turned into a game of “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” in which one underprivileged group is blamed for the problems affecting another underprivileged group, and some group of affluent white people show up to claim the Rescuer’s role.  That, in turn, leads to the third issue I want to consider here, which is the question of who benefits most from the habit of forcing all discussion of privilege in today’s America into the straitjacket of the Rescue Game.

It’s only fair to note that each of the three roles gets certain benefits, though these are distributed in a very unequal fashion. The only thing the people who are assigned the role of Persecutor get out of it is plenty of negative attention. Sometimes that’s enough—it’s a curious fact that hating and being hated can function as an intoxicant for some people—but this is rarely enough of an incentive to keep those assigned the Persecutor’s role willing to play the game for long.

The benefits that go to people who are assigned the role of Victim are somewhat more substantial. Victims get to air their grievances in public, which is a rare event for the underprivileged, and they also get to engage in socially sanctioned bullying of people they don’t like, which is an equally rare treat. That’s all they get, though. In particular, despite reams of the usual rhetoric about redressing injustices and the like, the Victims are not supposed to do anything, or to expect the Rescuers to do anything, to change the conditions under which they live. The opportunities to air grievances and bully others are substitutes for substantive change, not—as they’re usually billed—steps toward substantive change.

The vast majority of the benefits of the game, rather, go to the Rescuers. They’re the ones who decide which team of Victims will get enough attention from Rescuers to be able to start a game.  They’re the ones who enforce the rules, and thus see to it that Victims keep on being victimized and Persecutors keep on persecuting.  Nor is it accidental that in every Rescue Game, the people who get the role of Rescuers are considerably higher on the ladder of social privilege than the people who get given the roles of Victims and Persecutors.

Step back and look at the whole picture, and it’s not hard to see why this should be so. At any given time, after all, there are many different Rescue Games in play, with affluent white people always in the role of Rescuers and an assortment of less privileged groups alternating in the roles of Victims and Persecutors. Perhaps, dear reader, you find it hard to imagine why affluent white people would want to keep everyone else so busy fighting one another that they never notice who benefits most from that state of affairs. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that giving the underprivileged the chance to air their grievances and engage in a little socially sanctioned bullying is a great deal less inconvenient for the affluent than actually taking action to improve the lives of the underprivileged would be. Such thoughts seemingly never enter the minds of most Americans; I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

On an unrelated note, I’m pleased to announce that the latest After Oil anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores, is now available for sale. Like previous volumes in the series, this one’s packed with first-rate stories about the postpetroleum future, written by Archdruid Report readers; the one wrinkle this time around is that all the stories are set at least one thousand years in the future.

Founders House Publishing is also offering the e-book edition of the first volume in the series, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, for $2.99 just now. Those of my readers who haven’t yet read the original anthology, and like e-books, might want to give this one a try; if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat.


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Nestorian said...

Sylvia Rissell,

Regarding diversity training, you said the following:

"I always kept quiet during training, although an occasional curmudgeon would ask "why don't we want to hire the best people for the job?" and no one ever challenged him about why he felt that white men were always going to be the best candidates."

I take serious issue with your imputation of the underlying idea that white males are always the best candidates to remarks such as this.

On the contrary, what such people are really thinking is the following, very reasonable thought: "Why should a woman or a minority get the job if they are clearly inferior to white male candidates who may be available?"

Phil Knight said...

This is an interesting development - the amalgamation of the mainstream neoliberal parties:

Are they already entering the ghost dance phase?

pygmycory said...

Rebecca Brown, good grief that's awful. Did council put a stop to it? If not, it sounds like you may end up moving cities. Basement suites can sometimes be comparatively inexpensive compared to traditional appartments, and even give access to gardening room. I can't really give much help on places to go within the US.

onething said...

What Lynett said at 4/14/16, 11:31 AM

Breanna said...

I was introduced to this concept in ....2009ish with a joke:

"A CEO, a Tea Party member, and a black guy sit down at a table with a dozen cookies. The CEO sweeps 11 of the cookies into his lap and tells the Tea Partier, 'That black guy wants to take your cookie.'"

pygmycory said...

Alex Blaidd, yes, there's a huge amount of hypocrisy to be found all over the place, and real change requires hard choices. I don't know that it requires us to be 100% perfect on everything all the time.

This is what I'm doing:
-I do buy most food at the supermarket, but I buy as close to home as is available and doesn't cost massively more.
-I grow a significant portion of my own fruits and vegetables, all of them without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
-I am semi-vegetarian.
-I haven't been on a plane since 2009. That is causing me real sacrifice this year because there's a family reunion in England, and my Dad is also getting married over there. I could afford to go if I really really wanted to, but I've decided against going. To be honest, only part of the reason is climate change: the other part is that holding still that long causes considerable extra physical pain that lasts for days. And I'd have to choose between the wedding or the family reunion because they're too far apart by date. Whatever I do, someone will end up unhappy with me.
-I don't own a car.
-I buy 2nd hand wherever possible, including most clothing and my latest computer.
-but I do have cold-blooded pets that require electricity to keep them warm.

Granted, being poor makes some of these decisions easier, but it makes others, like the food-related ones, harder. I can't do a whole bunch of stuff I'd like to, like installing rain barrels, keeping chickens, or solar hot water, because I don't own my own place and my landlady doesn't want them. Even if that weren't the case I can't do a lot of handyman type stuff without hurting myself and I couldn't afford to pay someone else to do it.

We live in an imperfect world, and you do what you can.

Sojan Shieldbearer said...

"Lady Pixie Moondrip's Guide to Craft Names" was freaking hilarious. That sort of thing is very common not only in the Craft but other neo-Pagan traditions as well. I remember a while back seeing a book about Wicca at the local New Age bookstore in which the authors were listed as "Lord Foxglove" and "Lady Passion".

Sojan Shieldbearer said...

I am not familiar with the term Starhawking or its origins, so I did some web searches using that term and found some very interesting discussions about "paganism and privilege", Wiccan privilege" and the like.

My first reaction was, ye gods people get hot under the collar about the most petty of things! It certainly sounds like the Rescue Game as practiced by salary class liberals has infected the Wiccan and neo-pagan scene in a really bad way, just like it has poisoned academic and political discourse on our university campuses.

I think there are a lot of people out there who are simply looking for an excuse to fight and persecute those they don't like, and things like political correctness and discussions of privilege are simply an excuse that people use to indulge in that kind of behavior.

As a Spenglerian, I see this as yet more evidence that the Faustian Civilization is falling apart internally.

Howard Bloom in his book "The Lucifer Principle" noted that civilizations that are in decline often fall prey to indulging in this sort of petty infighting and scapegoating instead of dealing with the real problems they face, because its easier and not as scary as facing up to the real challenges.

He points out that as the Muslim Volkerwanderung into Europe has gathered steam, the privileged classes of Europe have turned to infighting over questions of political correctness and persecuting those who are deemed to be politically incorrect, instead of dealing honestly with the problems that Europe is facing as a result of mass immigration.

As a civilization, we are definitely in deep doo-doo and most of the damage seems to be of the self-inflicted variety.

Derv said...


Oh, okay. If it was considered and just didn't make the cut, that's perfectly fine of course (and I'm in good company). I did post it on the original comments section. I was just concerned that, since it wasn't on the list, it didn't get considered. I might just do that, actually. Into the Ruins could be a very cool new magazine. Thanks for the tip and consideration!

I'll also add to the chorus of those who appreciate that you're back; I've been lurking lately as my life has gotten very, very busy, but I always read every post and it's always great food for thought.

Marinhomelander said...

(Rewritten with bad words changed)

I fell for it, kept reading the rules of the game and trying to connect it to the real world--I thought, "God, this is confusing" and then I remembered the warning:

"It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe..."

I think that there's an update of the Southerner As Victim category that could be addressed in our society because it's never mentioned in the media or by activist groups, nor psychologists, as far as I can see.

It is embodied by Whites As Victims of Black Crime, borne out of the busing era of the 1960s-1980s. I have encountered dozens of white and a couple of Asian people who got the *tar* beat out of them in school by bused in black children and teenagers their own age based strictly on racial animus. The existence of this group is vehemently denied, especially by white liberals.

Most people who went through this laugh it off and are seemingly decent human beings, but I wonder if many of the homicidal cops out there didn't go into law enforcement as a means of avenging this in their childhood?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

patriciaormsby, please permit me to express sympathy and empathy for what you went through at the age of seven. You had to cope with being rejected completely by the only social group available to you, hearing them express contempt for personal characteristics you could do nothing about, while the adults in authority told you it was your own fault and there was something entirely different wrong with you. You must have been very lonely and sad.

At least one adult finally allowed you to tell your truth and believed you.

When I was in the fifth grade, the entire student body of the school I had transferred to ostracized me for the rest of the school year. No physical harassment, and the adults did not attack me; they just ignored what was going on. I suppose an eleven year old girl can get more mental distance from her situation than a seven year old. So nowhere near as awful, but bad. It had lasting effects on how I view myself and other people.

onething said...

Said JMG,

"Nearly every former British colony I can think of is still riven with ethnic rivalries the British government deliberately stirred up -- think Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Anglo-Canadians and Quebecois, Irish and northern Irish, etc., etc., etc. It was a very profitable gimmick in its day. "

Wow, that is not a perspective I have heard before. How did the British stir up those rivalries and why was it profitable to them?

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, exactly. The problem with words like "racism" in contemporary discourse is that they presuppose that privilege, prejudice, and acts of injustice are all a package deal, and anyone who benefits from privilege must by definition be prejudiced and engage in acts of injustice, which simply isn't true -- and equally, it allows those who aren't engaged in acts of injustice to claim that they don't benefit from privilege, which again simply isn't true.

111DFC, that's fascinating -- many thanks! You're right, of course, that the good vs. evil dynamic is hardwired into American culture by way of its religious roots, partly in Predestinationism but also more generally in the whole range of Protestant theology.

Cherokee, ah, yes -- stealth inflation. That's a major issue here also, where product debasement and decreasing package size combine with gimmicked statistics to try to hide the fact that it's getting harder and harder for most Americans to make ends meet.

Tidlösa, well, I wrote it after my first sustained contact with the Neopagan scene, so it does have a certain verisimilitude...

Patricia, as you may have noticed, neither "Grey" nor "Badger" appear in Lady Pixie's list -- nor, for that matter, in the expanded list for evil types provided by Lord Ooky Hellwrought. So I don't draw any conclusions at all. ;-)

Phil, good. Yes, that's a fine start.

Patricia, of course. The problem here being that common sense would deprive those who enjoy being outraged of their favorite entertainment...

Ed, the map is not the territory, but it's used to represent the territory.

Hubertus, by all means.

Other Tom, yes, that's a good example.

Don, well, yes. When I run out of things to say on the subjects of this blog, I'll either reorient it to some other subject or close it down.

Jeanne, the Rescue Game pervades contemporary American culture, so I'm not surprised! I'll look forward to your stories.

Nancy Sutton said...

Can't resist...this 'divide and conquer', keeping the divided unaware of the big picture, is some fine form of magic. The heart of stage magic is distraction... a high art in the political arena, at least, lol ;)

John Michael Greer said...

Sylvia, I'm not at all surprised that diversity training had some positive effect back in the day. It's usually when something like that gets taken over by the already privileged, and used as another tool to wedge themselves into positions of influence, that any remaining positive potential is lost. As for your proposed hierarchy, nice -- might you consider writing an SF story for the current Space Bats contest, with a society along those lines as the setting?

Dennis, all of us are involuntary participants in any number of Rescue Games. You've certainly named a couple. I hope, though, that when coyotes try to raid the chicken coop, you actually do something to protect them, rather than just giving them an opportunity to express their pain and grief!

Doctor W., that seems like a reasonable supposition. If Clinton wins, we may still get four more years on the tail end of the Reagan era -- her policies don't deviate an iota from the elite consensus of that era, after all.

Rita, I still hear the term from time to time. I first noticed her use of that tactic in an essay in a collection I reviewed some years ago, and have heard plenty of stories since that time.

Emmanuel, yeah, that's got to have been a harrowing experience. Unintentionally breaking the rules of a major social game will do that!

Pseudorandom, now's the time to start selling shares in a company to locate and sell previously undiscovered lithium mines! Give yourself a million dollar a year salary out of the inflow of venture capital, and ride that baby until the bottom drops out; if you've got enough of your take stashed offshore, you'll be fine. Ah, the wonders of modern capitalism!

Martin, I don't know -- Acirfahtuos makes me think of acier fatueux, "fatuous steel," which is at least a colorful image.

Batalos, in my experience, at least, affluent people of color in the US haven't really gotten deeply into the Rescue Game yet. We'll see what happens in the longer run.

Gottfried, the key is to remember the difference between the game and the real world. If you get assigned the role of Persecutor, walk away -- don't engage the Victims and Rescuers if you can possibly avoid it, no matter how desperately they try to get you to play your assigned role. If you get assigned any other role, do the same thing: don't play. Meanwhile, any time you catch yourself thinking of yourself or anyone else as "a victim deserving a rescuer," or falling into the mindspace of the game in some other way, stop and reframe the issue in some way that violates the rules of the game. Nietzsche is a good name to invoke here; his relentless questioning of the motivations behind moral beliefs is a useful tool for getting out from under dysfunctional games like the Rescue Game.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, I'd read that differently. Macron is claiming the abandoned center of the political spectrum; my guess is that he won't amalgamate the parties, he'll simply strip them of large portions of their current support in the process of building a mass movement, which may well put him into power -- constitutionally or otherwise.

Breanna, that's good. Now reimagine the same joke with an affluent white liberal, a poor person of color, and a white working class guy; the liberal scoops the cookies and then says to the person of color, "that racist cracker is trying to steal your cookie." It works just as well that way!

Sojan, well, Ladty Pixie's guide was based on direct personal experience. I knew a lot of people in the Pagan scene with really silly names. As for your second comment, er, I've basically stopped interacting with the Neopagan mainstream precisely because I got tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, since I'm a Druid rather than a practitioner of eclectic Wicca. It's rather as though a bunch of Christians insisted that Jews didn't really need their own congregations -- after all, they can just come on down to church and praise Jesus...

Derv, one of the big frustrations of these contests is that there are way too many good stories, and I can only take a certain number of them!

Marin, that's a great example of the way the Rescue Game narrative is used to distort experience. Of course that happened -- but it's inadmissible, because Victims are always and only Victims, and only Persecutors are supposed to Persecute.

Onething, the British used just about every trick you can think of to stir up those rivalries. Why was it advantageous to them? Well, if you want to keep an empire, isn't it helpful if the local people are so busy hating each other they never get around to uniting to rebel against your imperial rule?

Nancy, excellent. Glad to see you're paying attention!

Sven Eriksen said...

Hehe, you think so? :-D Myself, I thought it sounded more like one of Dick Cheney's evil corporations (hey wait I think it just might actually oh never mind).

GoodBoundariesCampaign said...

Have you any suggestions for how one would go about applying that to migration policies?
Western Europe is completely mired in the Rescue narrative on the asylum/refugee system which is now colliding with the reality of mass migration.

At present, migrants pay €10k to fly directly to Europe with false papers from, say, Afghanistan – a sum that most Afghans will never see. In other words, it disproportionately benefits the more privileged globally, rather than those it was intended to help back in 1950’s Europe.

I’m trying to put forward a compromise position that could be politically acceptable. It starts from the premise that the needs of current residents of a country should form the basis for setting and implementing limits on migration. If taken seriously, that ‘should’ create political space for an open discussion of who benefits and who loses, and in what way, from various forms of migration.

It would include, for example, people’s need for decent pay and safety from terrorist attacks to be taken into account in migration policy. That would of course breach EU laws but the EU’s existence and membership are moving targets and such international law is far more a matter of politics than law. I’d expect those trends to continue.

Then, subject to those limits, I’m saying that refuge should be offered directly first to those most in need of it around the world, not those most able to physically reach a European border – which is the current limit in practice.

That would cut out the people smugglers, drownings etc. In theory it should also hugely reduce the security risks – because it would focus on people whose real identities and ages can be established (most now destroy their documentation because the system incentivises that) and because, contrary to the Rescue narrative, terrorists are far less likely to be found among that group. I think that flows from the nature of oppression and persecution.

This element does involve playing the Oppression Olympics. But it seems to me that there are contexts where it’s appropriate to do that. Providing refuge is more a form of charity for those who can’t really help themselves than it is (or should be) a form of solidarity with people who are better able to take care of themselves.

Engaging in it is also almost politically necessary because a majority of people from all classes do want to help those fleeing war and persecution so the retention of the spirit of the asylum system is necessary.

I’m trying to redress the balance for wage class people in a way that can be accepted by enough of the political class to be implemented. From what I hear from wage class people, most want to help genuine refugees but, rightly, don’t trust the current system to do that, and they don’t want to be disproportionately burdened with the costs as they presently are. Some seek a shutdown of the whole rotten system, some a total ban on Muslim immigration etc.

Whatever about the ethics of those positions, I just don’t think they’re remotely achievable in the present political climate here. I’m uncomfortable about putting forward a position which won’t simply amplify those kinds of demands but which I think has far more chance of succeeding in achieving the outcome they’re looking for, because I know how the political classes work. What do you think? Anyone have thoughts on it?

Shane W said...

The use of the term "cracker" on the ADR just made my day! For some strange reason, I love that term. LOL

234567 said...

@ Gottfied etc.

This really is one of those games where the only winning move is just not to play. It doesn't matter where you enter the game - the only way to win is to stop playing. You have to step out of the game and let it go, let it pass you by.

This game is such a huge time-sink - and causes so much inner turmoil and stress when playing. There are much better and more concrete uses for the time we have here on planet Earth.

Change has to start with each of us - laws are made to be broken and ignored and modified by those in the game. Personal change is the only thing that can end these games.

HalFiore said...

I am hopelessly behind on the comments, it being spring and all, so I hope I'm not going over covered ground. It seems to me that a way out of the game might be called something like, oh, maybe, "Collapse now and avoid the rush." Yes, I'm white, college educated, and spent about 20 years of my working life in what's generally called a "profession," (though also an equal amount driving nails, turning wrenches, and lifting things) and none of that can be changed. Indeed, I consider myself better at being able to understand and do something about the things I consider important than I would have been without my middle-class upbringing and my education.

What I can do something about at this point is the contribution my class normally makes to the intractable issues facing us, both cultural and material. I know this could be contorted into a subtle form of Rescuer, i.e., rescuing the victims by becoming one of them, but I have no desire to do that, either. (My score on that test that was going around last week indicated moderately out of touch, mostly on cultural crappola like the working class' purported horrible taste in beer and entertainment. If that isn't a ham-fisted stereotype, I'd like to see one, but at any rate, I'm not about to start drinking Bud Lite and shopping at WalMart.)

Oh, I digressed, and had a bunch more to sa6y, but an ornery, ancient piece of farm equipment is screaming for attention...

Patricia Mathews said...

Automated Persecutors. Be very afraid.....

The Rise of the Trollbots:

Makes the old-time poison pen letters seem almost harmless!

pygmycory said...

The british definitely used divide-and-conquor on their possessions, as did the USSR. I think it is a big reason so many post-colonial countries and yugoslavia imploded or had civil wars.

Canada is usually thought of as exceedingly peaceful and possibly boring (at least on its home soil), but Quebec has nearly voted to leave a couple of times, and there was minor terrorism courtesy of the FLQ in 1970, followed by temporary imposition of martial law. Lots of political wrangling on a permenenant basis. There's also plenty of problems with the First Nations and Metis over the years, although honestly I think most of that is the fault of people in Canada rather than Britain.

And Canada got off rather lightly, for the most part. Look at Israel and Palestine, or India, Bangladesh and Pakistan...

Patricia Mathews said...

I clicked on After Oil 4. If there is any way to purchase this book from Founder's House, it's not obvious to me. Even clicking on the title merely showed another picture of the cover. I have contacted them about this. Or am I just too stupid to see it?

Ma Ha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
onething said...

@ Sylvia,

"I always kept quiet during training, although an occasional curmudgeon would ask "why don't we want to hire the best people for the job?" and no one ever challenged him about why he felt that white men were always going to be the best candidates."

I doubt that is what he meant. Instead, he probably meant that instead of affirmative action, why don't we just hire whoever is best regardless of race.

daveykwavey said...

hi JMG,
Echoing some of the previous commenters, I'm looking forward to your take on "Rescue Games: Climate Crisis Version", which I imagine is already locked and loaded for your blog. I know who gets to play Rescuer. Over the past few months, some of your posts and some of the links that you provided to articles that you criticize, have guided me to think about the strands of arguments that are growing in intensity as the reality of the climate crisis encroaches. I've been trying to identify the different camps that are unspooling these arguments, and after reading this weeks post I can see that what I'm after is a picture of the different competing narratives that are going to be attempting to frame all discussions about "What should we do?" for years to come. And narratives are important because they define the allowable.

onething said...


"A CEO, a Tea Party member, and a black guy sit down at a table with a dozen cookies. The CEO sweeps 11 of the cookies into his lap and tells the Tea Partier, 'That black guy wants to take your cookie.'"

Very good! Wouldn't that be the game called "Let's you and him fight." ?

David said...

General observation that I need to make better personal choices. Getting involved in discussion threads on political sites re Clinton (and Sanders and Trump) is a poor use of time. Easy trap to fall into, however. Must stay more aware of the broader game.

Justin W. McCarthy said...

Sorry so late to this.

The environmental movement also plays a game of rescuer-victim-persecutor. The persecutors are corporations. The victims are people who are being duped by corporate propaganda. And the rescuers are environmentalists/liberals that are trying to enlighten the victims and save them from the machinations of the persecutors.

Doctor Westchester said...


As far as Hillary Clinton winning the Presidency; as I said, the Reagan era ends with this election - one way ... or another. This definitely doesn't seem to be the place for a smiley emoticon, you have already mentioned the ghastly possibilities of what "or another" might be.

Regarding your Specific Prediction #4 of your first post of year, recently news from Zero Hedge is suggesting that something is breaking, at least in our relation with, the desert kingdom.

HalFiore said...

Lady Pixie reminds me of a monologue I used to do among fellow progressive eco justice warrior types back in the late 20th cent. It was about how to adopt a suitable NewAge - rhymes with "sewage" - name. The first part is anything from the natural world along with a modifier. Can't be just "Wolf," has to be "Gray Wolf," "Falling Star," not just "Star," etc. The second part is something from a non-western European culture, though Celtic is definitely OK. East Indian was hot during the early days of NewAge, and God help all of the now 40-somethings named "Arjuna," but the favorites were Native American, African and Celtic. The monologue always ended with the announcement that henceforth, I wished to be called "Hot Springs Arkansas."

Well, you had to be there. I did once have a lady insist on calling me "Hot" for the rest of the evening, but that was some time ago...

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Rejoice! Close down ADR and relaaax!

"The threat of Peak Oil is very last-century."

It's like declaring on the third glass - "My wine bottle emptying 'ish so earlier thish evening'... cheers!"

Apropos Yes! Magazine..? It does appear some environmentally aware folks badly need to be cornucopians too. Maybe it's some cognitive dissonance thing.



Scotlyn said...

@Onething and @Nestorian in re Sylvia's "curmudgeon":

"Instead, he probably meant that instead of affirmative action, why don't we just hire whoever is best regardless of race." (per Onething)

I wonder had you considered that it was pondering the very question: "why DON'T we just hire whoever is best regardless of race [and gender and class and etc]" that led to the creation of affirmative action and similar projects?

Because, the fact is, "we don't" do that (hire the best person regardless).

Speaking as "we" the society with its complicated hierarchy of privilege and detriment, which awards both, by means of arbitrary and arcane algorithms, to those who have done nothing to earn them.

Sven Eriksen said...

@onething & JMG

If I may interject, I would perhaps not view this strategy as merely another way to play divide et impera. I'd say it is actually a form of scorched earth tactics that the British reliably applied as a final act of imperial malevolence upon being forced to abandon a former colony. It works by ensuring that the former colony remains permanently crippled by setting up an artificially created political entity within the confines of the former colony and then ignite a conflict that is practically unsolvable, precisely due to said artificial nature. Then the empire withdraws and lets the resulting circus play itself out (though it can perhaps be approved by the persuaded to return in the form of "rescuer" at a later date). Note that Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Israel etc. all came about upon the withdrawal of British influence in those respective regions, and the result has been the same every time. I can readily image that De Valera, as one of the keenest political thinkers in the Sinn Fein suspected what was going on, and opposed Collins so fiercely on the terms of secession because of it.

Now the U.S. of course shamelessly nicked this strategy for their own imperial toolbox and has been employing it with equally good results, Syria and the Ukraine being the current poster children (JMG, you posted a question a while back if perhaps Obama had some unstated reason to actually not want to defeat Daesh. I'd say this has more than a little to do with it). As such I suggest, when you see this strategy being played out, see it as an admittance of defeat.

Matt said...


I don't know if I'm being particularly dim this week but after re-reading the post I still don't think I'm clear about what the officially approved narrative on race is.

If it's the Rescue Game, it seems less a narrative - which one might expect to be a consistent story - as much as a structure that can contain many different positions. Are you saying, in effect, as long as the conversation is going like this, then that's OK (because it's not threatening to officialdom)?

The thing that's bugging me, though, is the ease which many commenters have seized on the game to reaffirm their own opinions, quickly slotting their favourite villains into one of more of the roles (usually Victim and Rescuer) with a satisfied "I told you so". The game has gone from being a tool of analysis and understanding to being a means of stereotyping and berating one group or another - unspecified SJWs, unidentified proponents of Black Lives Matter, random liberals or whoever.

Can somebody not involve themselves in, say, climate change activism, or campaign against an injustice that touches them deeply, without being traduced? And how should somebody pursuing that path avoid the danger of slipping into games themselves?

Matt and Jess said...


I just wanted to point out that I think some people are getting it. There's an article on the HuffPost that discusses the democrats' trend towards right-wing economic policy over the last 20 years and a commenter (Josh Silverman) stated, "By rallying against the dog-whistle racism, sexism, and homophobia of Republican platforms, they unwittingly divided their own base along those very lines. Instead of a message of solidarity in the face of economic domination, they ran hard on social issues and co-opted or conceeded on economics. Poor and working class whites, blacks, women, gays, and latinos have more in common with each other than with the oligarchs, but by focusing on identity instead of agency the Democratic pary divided them."

I wish Trump weren't doing the same; I heard a pro-establishment-Republican ad a couple weeks ago that pointed out some of the things Trump has said re: trade and I was kinda surprised to find that I liked hearing what he had to say, not having heard much about his economic policy (only the stuff about the Wall, Muslims etc.). I think Trump is playing both sides of working class whites; you're victims of the wealthy, but you're also victims of these other ethnic/religious groups... unfortunately.

Patricia Mathews said...

For what it's worth, a Hillary ad that came in today's mail shows she's now running against Trump rather than Sanders, even though the primaries aren't over. As if she now thinks she has the nomination in the bag?

Shane W said...

One of the interesting things about the salary class elite is how they portray black Trump supporters, when they dare to discuss them at all, as "Uncle Tom" traitors to "the cause" and lump them in with conservatives. Seems like this is punishment for not playing the proper Rescue Game roll...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Matt and Jess--You cited 'There's an article on the HuffPost that discusses the democrats' trend towards right-wing economic policy over the last 20 years and a commenter (Josh Silverman) stated, "By rallying against the dog-whistle racism, sexism, and homophobia of Republican platforms, they unwittingly divided their own base along those very lines. Instead of a message of solidarity in the face of economic domination, they ran hard on social issues and co-opted or conceeded on economics. Poor and working class whites, blacks, women, gays, and latinos have more in common with each other than with the oligarchs, but by focusing on identity instead of agency the Democratic pary divided them." '

I agree with most of Silverman's comment but the assumption that it was unwitting is naive.

Matt said...

Shane W said: "One of the interesting things about the salary class elite is how they portray black Trump supporters, when they dare to discuss them at all, as "Uncle Tom" traitors to "the cause" and lump them in with conservatives. Seems like this is punishment for not playing the proper Rescue Game roll..."

Shane, what about those of the salary class elite who ARE Trump supporters?

Another of Berne's useful games is Ain't It Awful (described at this link, but read Games People Play to get it from the horse's mouth:

The risk is that we use this discussion of the Rescue Game as a way of playing Ain't It Awful (and the Blame Game), snarling at some poorly defined usual suspects ("salary class elites", "SJWs" and so on) without getting one step closer to a useful response to our predicament.

patriciaormsby said...

@Deborah, thank you! I look back on the game as something humorous, but I was a real mess as a teenager. I think it was harder on the girls than on me. I looked and acted just like their little tormenters in the public schools, and they persecuted me for it. They are nice people, so that's got to hurt. I don't blame them. I was a little ragwort. Now I'm a big one.

Allie said...

So it seems that Trump is playing his own Rescue Game, where he, being a wealthy billionaire white guy is the rescuer. The victims are played by white wage class Americans and the persecutors are played by illegal immigrants.

Ray Wharton said...

It is useful to know about trap games, forewarned is forearmed. There are many. Playing games is one of the most typical things for humans, like other life, to do.

We imitate what we contemplate, the comments demonstrate. Imitate the games of old. Beyond imitating the games of others we love to invent games. I wonder what games the commenters on this blog have invented. I would love to hear about the fun ones. What kind of blog post would provoke such a sharing?

Fred said...

Late to the comments - was in DC for several days. Not for Democracy Spring, although that was interesting to see.

The way I heard the Rescue Game explained was in terms of interpersonal relationships, so this take moving it up to the 10,000 ft. level was really great. People pick a role: victim, persecutor, rescuer, and then move around in the different roles in their life. For instance, one can feel like the victim at work, then interact with people outside of work as a persecuting people (angry and rude to everyone), and then come home and rescue the family doing everyone's laundry or cleaning. Once a person plays one role in one group, then the other two roles come into play automatically elsewhere in one's life with other groups of people. As it was said to me - "Once you buy the ticket, you take the ride."

So going back up to the 10,000 ft. view, the groups you named as victims in the media, let's go with African Americans because of the media coverage is so much, can also be seen as persecutors, i.e. Black gangs in neighborhoods, and rescuers, i.e. Black activists, civil rights leaders, the President. African Americans as a group bought the ticket in the Rescue Game so they ride the whole ride around doing all the roles.

The middle class white people I know also play all the roles. Listening to their whining about life you would think they are the victims. Just not enough time to go to the gym, get kids to all their activities, and go out to dinner on a Saturday night. boo-hoo

Fred said...

Thought of another entry point into the Rescue Triangle/Game - the Culture Wars. Evangelical Christians are tasked with going out and preaching the gospel and encouraging people to be saved by Christ, i.e. rescuers. Evangelicals are one of the markets of Fox news programming. Its interesting to me for years that Fox News targets their message to evangelicals so that they feel like the victims in our country - the war on Christmas, gay wedding cakes, Chick-fil-a under attack, trans people in bathrooms (to name a few). That leaves evangelicals to do the last role on the rescue game, persecutor, because they already bought the ticket to victim and rescuer, and once they bought at least one ticket, they go do the other role(s) too.

Mark said...

Well, it seems to me the most useful tool to take away from this weeks post is that, the rentier class is not growing numerically (only monetarily); the working and salary class are shrinking; and the welfare class is growing by leaps and bounds (every time we hit a bump on the downhill road of LESS) - and that there are several million variations of one game alone, and there are more games with more variations, I'm guessing. And They Are All Distracting Us From the Reality of All Us Being On the Same Fracking Road! Together! Dig?

Someone asked about what games (I, other readers) have created in our lives.

My favourite game is: Empower others.

Another is: Silly Me!

And finally a bow to the Church of the Subgenius: Hey Brother,(or Sister) Let's have some Slack!

But the really key game is:(drumroll please) Get Out of Debt and Live!

Joseph Ashenbrucker said...

Hello sir--I don't know how to bring articles of interest to you--but this one is worth a look as it is on the 'NGO/Industrial complex' The author also has an interesting Thought Experiment: "But let’s pretend that Earth’s resources are infinite. It is assumed (foolishly) that fossil fuel power plants will be shut down once adequate solar and wind energy infrastructure is established." Best to you JMG i remain hugely grateful for your articulating the hopeless. Best, Joe Ashenbrucker

pastperfect said...

JMG. As always your Wed. evening post makes for a complete day. After reading your enlightened critique of Burke, I immediately thought of the contemporary British philosopher John Gray. You probably know of him but if you don't you might find him quite interesting. Edson Lake

Hubertus Hauger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mnemos said...

Read the blog post - which was enjoyable and elucidating...
250 comments - that will take some time.
But quick comment of my own - as I read the description of the "game" it fit very well as a description of the fundamental plot of Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand's capitalists who are disappearing are perfectly described as those assigned the Persecutor role who are quitting the game.

Unknown said...

Thanks, love you

Jetpack Joyride 2

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