So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

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Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

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More on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140

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Looking back at Kim Stanley Robinson’s body of work, I get the idea that he’s sort of interested in the idea of engineering both social and environmental problems, and that he thinks these two areas are heavily intertwined in producing threats to the future of humanity. Most people won’t want to commit to the intellectual exercise of slogging through all 600 pages of the teensy font and slow-moving plot in New York 2140 to unpack his ideas, so I’m going to summarize some of it here and ask for discussion. This summary includes major spoilers, of course.

Robinson’s first economics lesson is on the tyranny of sunk costs. This means the money already invested in putting New York City where it is and adding utilities, infrastructure and population. Because of this, nobody wants to move it somewhere else when the tide starts rolling up Wall Street and into the Theatre District. Instead, everybody copes.

Change is definitely coming in the next century, regardless of your political persuasion. Robinson has suggested methods for dealing with the need for different housing and transportation methods as sea levels rise and fossil fuels near exhaustion. This includes a return to airships and clippers ships, plus solar power and villages floating both in the air and on the water. Building methods make a difference. Because many of the NYC buildings are anchored into bedrock, they will continue to stand and be usable, like a new Venice, but buildings built on a slab won’t do this. (That’s just for informational purposes. See also Miami Beach, which continues to stand through major hurricanes while cheap development housing washes away.)

It’s clear Robinson thinks the recent US propensity for uncontrolled capitalism is the cause of a number of social ill, and a couple of his schemes relate to bringing this under control. First, he mentions in passing that people should be housed vertically, rather than in the spread out single-family developments currently popular in the US. This is already implemented in Europe, which has high population density. I was there in the 1990s and saw it then. A recent trip confirmed the continued policy. In Germany, for example, it’s really hard to get a permit to build a single family home outside of a city–though it is fairly easy to get a permit to renovate old buildings. Plus, home mortgages are really expensive and hard to get. Therefore, most of the population stays in vertical housing, allowing for extensive farms, parks and woodlands. Amsterdam has about 800K people and about 900K bicycles. The main streets consist of a bicycle lane, a car lane, and a tram lane. The cars will stop for you to cross but the bikes won’t. In contrast to this, many towns and cities in the US encourage extensive development of farm and woodlands to increase revenue from real estate taxes, while having no public transportation at all. As buildings age, they are abandoned for new development, leaving urban blight in the central cities. This system of constant new development generates wealth, but is really bad for local ecologies, and also the people trapped in the blight, who have little access to jobs and services and are therefore unproductive and need lots of police and social services.

Robinson’s next question is, whose fault is this? He thinks it’s government policy, of course, because government is owned by capitalists. It looks like he’s still steaming about the Bush recession of 2008. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, this was brought on by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and because of automation, bank controls and globalization trends, it resulted in a “jobless recovery.” This is what current President Trump is trying to change with his negotiations in trade policy. However, Robinson thinks the people, a.k.a. the democracy, should have demanded a different response in 2008. The financial crisis caused major failures in large corporations in the US, especially financial firms on Wall Street, similar to the Great Depression. The Obama administration took over trying to fix things, as Bush’s term was up. The government tried to just let the market handle things, which is what capitalists always say should be done, but it quickly became clear this would destroy both the US and the world economies. In other words, some of these firms are just “too big to let fail.” The government bailed out banks and Wall Street firms with taxpayer money, which Robinson thinks was never fully paid back. In other words, this was a huge transfer of wealth from the US middle and working class to the wealthy. Robinson thinks the government should have bought the companies instead and nationalized the financial firms, which would have generated a considerable profit for the taxpayers. He’s suggesting the voters insist on this the next time around.

Besides that, I get the impression Robinson has no patience with amateurs who mess with animal migrations and habitats. His air-headed Cloud star is a real eye-roller.

Recommended.

Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System

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Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

Transgressive writing as a minority pursuit

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I’ve been poking around again, this time wondering a little about the history of transgressive fiction. As it turns out, transgressive is considered a genre, and many writers of what we think of as classics today were actually considered transgressive in their day. This includes writers like the Marquis de Sade (which you would expect), Émile Zola and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. James Joyce’s Ulysses was actually banned in the US until 1933, and William S. Burroughs was the subject of an obscenity trial.

People are still writing transgressive fiction today, of course. It’s normally considered to be cutting edge works about sex, drugs, incest, pedophilia, etc., but as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, people who think they’re just writing something creative can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of correctness.

Here’s an interesting article by Polari prize-winning writer Diriye Osman who found he had written a transgressive book called Fairytales for Lost Children about the African gay experience. The first indication of this, of course, was difficulty in finding a publisher. Osman suggests that writing programs normally promote a type of writing that appeals to the mainstream, while avante-garde and transgressive works always come from outsiders and minority writers. Osman also notes that most editors are very risk-averse, which means they don’t much want to deal with avante-garde and transgressive writers–they want more of what’s on the best-seller list. After numerous rejections, Osman finally found a tiny publisher for his collection of stories, which (surprise!) then went on to win an award.

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