The revolted hero

The political resonance of a Delta Green character type

There is a type of hero in literature who reacts with instinctive hate and revulsion toward the foreign. In the context of a fantasy setting, such heroes can be made to seem wise by author fiat, as is the case in Delta Green.

The canon and authorized fiction of the Delta Green setting contains a few such men, among them Donald A. Poe, Charlie Paskow and Reginald Fairfield, all appearing in various DG stories. Being traditional heroes, they are competent, indomitable, inexhaustible and self-sufficient. They fight the human pawns and monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos without doubt or hesitation and are weirdly successful at it.

I feel that such characters exemplify the self-image of the autocrat, imagining herself to be the stalwart protector of her people against evil. I brought this up on the Delta Green Mailing List, where one poster made a connection to xenophobia and the presidency of Donald Trump, but questioned the association between autocracy and revulsion:

I don’t know what autocracy and revulsion towards the foreign have to do with each other. It seems to me that a 51% majority can be xenophobic just as easily as 1 president.

It’s a topic worth going into.

Autocrats broadly favour the traditional values of community and hierarchy. These are conservative values. There are psychological reasons for why people gravitate toward conservatism.1 For example, it is mainly politically conservative people who focus on the negative when shown both positive and negative images.2 The response is physiological. It’s about brain structure, and much of it is genetic.3 The correlations extend beyond negativity. Conservatism also correlates with disgust,4 including disgust at seeing people of other races.5

Here I’ll take a moment to state the obvious: This is social science, not hard science. The brain is complex. The connections drawn are statistical. Correlation does not imply causation. You can be conservative without being racist or anti-democratic. You can be anti-democratic or racist without being conservative. There are more than two ideological patterns in the world, etc.

Back to the connection: The more wired we are to stay alert against danger, the more focused we are on preserving ourselves and our in-group against danger. We are correspondingly more likely to err on the side of caution and perceive any change as challenging or negative until proven otherwise. Perceiving the world as dangerous in this way leads to a desire for safety and control. Indeed, conservatism correlates with a desire for purity and discipline.6 This leads in turn to submission under autocracy. So, for example, people who are drawn to authoritarian political leaders tend to be more easily revolted by bodily smells.7

The standard explanatory model for this whole pattern of observations has to do with the control of disease in animal communities. Genes that made some of our ancestors xenophobic, authoritarian and generally disgusted by any potential source of disease would have saved lives and themselves.

Delta Green is based on the work of good old HPL, a man who was intelligent but fearful. He clung to tradition in his cultural identity, to the point of anachronism. This is directly reflected in his writing. The things he invented, most of which are still present in DG after HPL’s overt racism was deprecated, are often disgusting. Shoggoths, for example, are formless because it makes them foreign and capable of entering anything. Their invasiveness is in line with the disease-preventing human fears that were amplified in HPL’s brain.

It is therefore not surprising that Delta Green sometimes resonates with conservatism, specifically through its revolted heroes. The game retains a fantasy form of racism.8 More importantly, it posits that humanity has a clear enemy, which is nature, and the knowledge of nature. Despite rejecting Abrahamic religious ideas, Delta Green defines this enemy as evil, without explanation. Its source is HPL’s extradiegetic fearfulness and focus on the negative.

As in a dictatorship, the definition of the enemy cannot be questioned. In-game curiosity about the enemy is therefore bad. Player characters who are open, who form their own opinions about the threat or who think scientifically are likely to get killed. The greatest heroes in DG, like the three I mentioned above, are those who use violence without doubt or hesitation. They act on instinct, on the impulse of disgust. This rhymes with an anti-democratic political development in our time.

We all want to think that our knee-jerk responses are wise. Delta Green allows its players to do so. It’s a fantasy. These days it has no political agenda, not even a pro-democratic one. Fortunately, HPL’s writing is perfectly enjoyable without all the elements of his personality.

  1. John T. Jost et al., “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition”, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 129, issue 3, 2003. Available here

  2. John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford, “Differences in Negativity Bias Underlie Variations in Political Ideology”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 37, issue 3, 2014. 

  3. Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth and Geraint Rees, “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults”, Current Biology, vol. 21, issue 8, 2011-04-26. Available here

  4. Y. Inbar, D.A. Pizarro, R. Iyer and J. Haidt, “Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism, and Voting”, Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 3, 2012. Pizarro has published extensively on politics and disgust. 

  5. G. Hodson and K. Costello, “Interpersonal Disgust, Ideological Orientations, and Dehumanisation as Predictors of Intergroup Attitudes”, Psychological Science, vol. 18, 2007. 

  6. Dana R. Carney, John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gosling and Jeff Potter, “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind”, Political Psychology, vol. 29, 2008. Available here

  7., “Luktsinnet avslöjar diktatorn”, 2018-02-28. Available here

  8. For example: “They are the Tcho-tcho, a vile, homeless race”, says an omniscient narrator about some Asians in Chicago. Adam Scott Glancy with John Tynes, “Tiger Transit”, Delta Green: Countdown (1999).