The Racist Hand of Doom

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews the Wordsworth Editions compilation of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane stories.
~
The work of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian (and, arguably, the entire "sword and sorcery" subgenre of fantasy fiction), is slowly but surely slipping into the public domain in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, making his work easy pickings for the good people at Wordsworth Editions, whose new "Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural" line has been featured previously on FerretBrain. The Right Hand of Doom is a slim compilation containing all the stories Robert E. Howard completed in his lifetime concerning the adventuring Puritan Soloman Kane, as well as a fragmentary story and a few poems. Like just about all of Howard's protagonists, Kane is a man of action, strong with his fists, fast with his sword, and deadly with his pistols. Unlike Conan, he is gaunt and sinewy, and lacks the Cimmerian's appetite for hard drinking and loose women. Interestingly, he also lacks a certain self-awareness; Howard states explicitly that Kane is ruled by a thirst for adventure and exploration, but never closely analyses his motives and rationalises them as an eternal quest for justice. This "justice" usually takes the form of bloody retribution; in many Kane stories he will come across evidence of a horrible atrocity, and then pursue the culprits to their utter destruction, no matter how far he must travel or how many years he must invest in the chase. Thus, Kane cuts a bloody swathe through the 17th Century just as Conan cuts one through the Hyborean Age.

So far, so good. There is, however, just a mild problem with the subject matter.

All of the Big Three of the pulp fantasy market of the 1920s and 1930s - Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and HP Lovecraft - were a little racist, in their own way, and I've always found Howard's racism, when it manifests, to be the most distasteful. Smith strikes me as honestly having his heart in the right place, but lacked any real contact with people of other cultures and races. Lovecraft's racism was of the cold and pseudoscientific sort common in the 1920s. It is in Howard's fiction that I occasionally see real hatred; there's a couple of Conan stories which degenerate into Conan slicing up dark people, or conquering a tribe (because a white outsider is clearly always going to be superior to a black person who's lived in the tribe all their life). But it's a curiously inconsistent bigotry, which sometimes isn't even manifested: I seem to recall that Conan was allied more than once with potent non-European warrior women who proved to be just as capable as he, although my memories might be confused by Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer.

The same prejudice, and the same inconsistency, are evident in the Solomon Kane stories, but appear much more regularly, since the majority of them are set in Africa. Not all of them - a quarter to a third are set in Europe, with Kane battling ghosts and undead sorcerers and the like. But much of the time he is wading through Africa, an Africa at the very beginning of European colonisation, where beyond the Slave Coast are lands that no European has ever penetrated. And the problem is that in hanging out in Africa he encounters more than a few African people, which means that Howard's inconsistent handling of black characters is very, very evident.

It is quite obvious that Howard finds writing about black people uncomfortable; he simply isn't sure how to handle them. A case in point is N'Longo, a shaman who makes a pact with Kane in the first story and appears a couple of other times. When he is first encountered, he's almost a comic figure; the only black character to have a speaking part in the story in question, he's all "Me big ju-ju man, me have mighty magic". At the same time, he has vast occult power and, whenever he shows up, understands what's going on far better than Kane does. In a later story, it's revealed that he talked funny in his earlier encounters with Kane because he was speaking pidgin English (a patois which, to be fair, is pretty much designed to make the speaker sound retarded); when he shifts into speaking his own dialect he's clearly an eloquent, intelligent man.

The inconsistent treatment of N'Longo in general is mirrored in the inconsistent treatment of Africans in general; sometimes they are baying savages, throwbacks to a primeval era who need to be tamed by European civilisation; other times they are innocent and even virtuous sorts, living in an untamed land with parallels to the American frontier and menaced by horrors - harpies, vampires, debased outposts of forgotten Atlantis - that provide suitable enemies for Kane to battle. In The Moon of Skulls Kane encounters an Atlantean priest who sees no difference between "white savages" and "black savages"; in about half the Kane stories, humanity as a whole is a horde of ignorant barbarians utterly unaware of the ancient wonders and terrors that dwell in the forgotten parts of the Earth - in those stories, black people and white people alike are victims of the horrors. When reading these stories, one can almost forget the racism of the less sensitive tales, but even in the more "really, aren't we all a bit savage in our own way?" stories there's a nasty undercurrent; often, the implication is that the solution to the woes of the harassed Africans is for a white person to come along with a gun and a sword to violently purge Africa of its primeval nastiness.

The inherent problem with the Kane stories is that "Africa" is used as a shorthand for "the forgotten, untamed parts of the world that civilised people don't understand", but defining it in that manner implicitly denies any sort of civilisation on the part of Africa's inhabitants. As the stories develop a consistent internal mythos, it turns out that Africa is not a uniquely evil place; many of the demons and monsters that Kane battles were banished to Africa by other cultures, which drove them out of Europe and Asia. The racism of the Kane stories is born out of ignorance, but slides into hatred all too easily.

On the other hand, this has the inadvertent effect of making the character of Kane more interesting than he may have been originally; the way the stories are written allows the reader, a lot of the time, to ascribe the nastier views to Kane as opposed to Howard; thus, Kane is transformed from square-jawed champion of civilisation to terrifying psychopath, wading throughout Africa in response to a strange calling that he does not understand and doesn't wish to think about, speaking more and more in awkward King James Bible English as he does, and recognising within himself - and, by implication, within European "civilisation" the exact same primitivism and savagery that is manifested openly in precolonial Africa. At one point he receives from N'Longo a mysterious ju-ju staff, of ancient origin; in a later story, where Kane is captured by a party of Arab slavers, a sage travelling with the slavers recognises the stave as one formerly belonging to the ancient Egyptian cult of Bast, and to King Solomon. Thus, even Kane's Christianity, the religion which underpins his European cultural roots and which, as a Puritan, he regards as the one constant thing in his life, is in fact a product of the same bizarre and alien past which yields the terrors he encounters in Africa.

Named after a wise sorcerer-king and the first murderer, Kane exhibits certain of the qualities of both, and it appears that Howard had a special destiny planned for him. The Kane series, however, was cut short - pretty much as soon as Howard started writing the Conan stories, his Kane output simply stopped, the Puritan's travels no longer holding his interest. Ultimately, that's the context these stories should be viewed in: flawed preliminary sketches for Howard's most important literary output. If you can look past the uglier elements there's some interesting historical horror-adventure stories in here, but if you can't it'll just make for uncomfortable reading; but hey, at least if you get the Wordsworth Edition neither Howard nor anyone connected to him gets the money, so it's not as if you're supporting the Solomon Kane Fund for Pacifying the Brown People by reading it.
Themes: Books, Horror
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 02:32 on 2011-07-14
It just occurred to me that I wrote a response to this before I started swaggering around Ferretbrain.
Arthur B at 09:03 on 2011-07-14
Interesting article.

For what it's worth:

- I spell N'Longa as "N'Longo" because it's not consistent in my edition. Blame sloppy editing on Wordsworth's part, I guess.

- I specifically didn't advocate tossing Kane down the memory hole or anything of the sort in the article; what I did say was that it's going to be seriously uncomfortable reading for anyone who finds that the racist elements get at them - and if they do find that's the case, the fault is with the book, not them.

I'm not saying the stories are utterly valueless and Howard should be shunned - hell, I still own my copies of Kane and Conan - but I am saying that I can't wholeheartedly recommend them to all fantasy readers when I know that there are plenty of fantasy readers out there who just plain won't stand for the racist content, and won't enjoy the stories as a result.

- I concede that Kane going to Africa and finding that "civilisation" itself is a myth and all is savagery and barbarism might have been the plan all along. The problem is the depiction of Africa as precisely such a hotbed of savagery and barbarism. Of course terrible things happened in Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But you know what also happened in that timeframe? The Thirty Years' War, surely the number one best platform for exposing the savagery held back by European social mores.

There was nothing stopping Howard depicting Kane as a roving adventurer whose travels took him all over the world, not just Africa - sometimes Kane would have adventures set entirely in Europe. But the majority of them have a tight focus on Africa, and surely part of the reason behind that is that Howard decided that Africa was the most barbarous portion of Earth during the time period in question. This is a point of view which is, to say the least, more than a bit Eurocentric. And that's going to turn off some readers.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 11:25 on 2011-07-14
It is an interesting thing to note that such stories set on earth always depend on something ancient and malevolent or seemingly barbarous, when the clearest examples of brutality and evil are always so close to home it is almost banal. I mean nothing comparable to the thirty years war happened in Africa before the coming of Europeans and one might argue before the colonization in the 19th century. Though Howard does have brutal stories in Europe such as the Grey Gods passing(in continuiyt with Turlogh Dubh and the Pict stories) and The Shadow of the Eagle? I think it is? About the battle of Glontarf field and the siege of Vienna 1529, respectively.
Arthur B at 12:59 on 2011-07-14
It's like the Smiths said: barbarism begins at home.
Michal at 02:22 on 2011-07-15
- I specifically didn't advocate tossing Kane down the memory hole or anything of the sort in the article; what I did say was that it's going to be seriously uncomfortable reading for anyone who finds that the racist elements get at them - and if they do find that's the case, the fault is with the book, not them.

That bears some explanation, on my part. I read this one the heels of another article that did say Howard's work should be consigned to the dustbin of history for his racism. Which means the opening statement doesn't actually have much to do with this article.

On the other hand, merely mentioning that the Solomon Kane tales have overt racist elements seems to set many fans off on "damn your PC crap just shut up and enjoy the stories" mode (take a look at the reviews and comments on Amazon), which bemuses me for the most part. Charles Saunders' got "Die, Black Dog!: A Look at Race in Fantasy Literature" published twice, first in the 70s, second in the 90s. The negative reaction the second time was much worst, and that doesn't really surprise me.

- I concede that Kane going to Africa and finding that "civilisation" itself is a myth and all is savagery and barbarism might have been the plan all along. The problem is the depiction of Africa as precisely such a hotbed of savagery and barbarism. Of course terrible things happened in Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But you know what also happened in that timeframe? The Thirty Years' War, surely the number one best platform for exposing the savagery held back by European social mores.

Very true. This is the same major complaint Chinua Achebe had with Heart of Darkness' defenders--sure, it's the white people who descend into madness, but it's Africa that makes them do so. What it boils down to is, yes, Joseph Conrad was a great writer, but that doesn't mean you should rationalize away his racism (and the only reason you would is to avoid guilt by association because you read/admire the stuff. In other words, it's a defensive reaction over the perceived argument that Joseph Conrad was a horrible racist and you're a horrible racist for liking him...and again, I don't see that vocalized with Conrad all that much except as a phantom threat by his apologists, but I sure saw it vocalized with Howard/Edgar Rice Burroughs/Clark Ashton Smith while I was in university).

I've wanted to do some sort of academic work on colonial narratives in early twentieth century pulp fiction, but, well, I have the wrong degree for that.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 06:34 on 2011-07-15
From the works of Conrad and his contemporaries, the strong impression is that the civilized world might be artificial in a sense, but the reakity of barbarism is much worse and makes the white person go mad. Rather like with H. P. Lovecraft, when it's revealed to the protagonist that all mankind's(or western europe's) illusions of grandeur are false and the true insignificance of everything becomes apparent, they just go mad. So even if Africa reveals the underlying barbarism of everything, it is still regarded as something worse and more terrifying than the comfortable lies of civilization.

I wonder how much this also has to do with the stifling nature of imperialism itself. I've read some research on how marginalized sexuality found its outlet in the colonies where the societal control wasn't as strict. This sort of liberation worked in some cases for women as well, if we take Marguerite Duras' L'Amant as an example. So this sort of literature is a sort of outlet for the more grim discontents of imperialism. People realized that their society was artificial in a sense and that it was not as civilized and good as claimed, but this was for many a cause of fear in the face of horrible reality. Reality which was signified by the sufficiently alien Africa. Mind turns also to people like Spengler and other profets of western doom.

This of course is not an excuse for the times racism, it's just that like Le Guin said that science fiction always talks about the times it was written in and not about the future, Lovecraft and Howard and Conrad are not really writing about Africa, but the imperialist west.
Arthur B at 10:38 on 2011-07-15
In other words, it's a defensive reaction over the perceived argument that Joseph Conrad was a horrible racist and you're a horrible racist for liking him...and again, I don't see that vocalized with Conrad all that much except as a phantom threat by his apologists, but I sure saw it vocalized with Howard/Edgar Rice Burroughs/Clark Ashton Smith while I was in university).

What the Howard/Conrad/whoever defenders honestly need to realise is that the more you try to explain how the author's racism really wasn't as bad as it looks, the more racist you look yourself. Whereas if you just say "Yes, these authors were incredibly racist, I still think the stories have value but I don't for a second feel that those aspects of them are defensible" then - in my experience, at least - people accept that.

It all comes back to the fallacy that a criticism of something you like is necessarily a criticism of you, which I have more or less zero patience for, even though I do recognise it as an emotional reaction in myself occasionally.

On Conrad: I confess I've never managed to read the book. Though I do love Apocalypse Now. I guess it's a bit more palatable because Kurtz and Willard go nuts not because they're confronted with the horrible realities of Vietnam, but with the horrible realities of war, and the action could have been transposed to any other war but it makes the most sense to set it in Vietnam because that's the one which had the most emotional resonance with American audiences at the time. (Plus, tying Vietnam in with Conrad implicitly ties in Cold War Commie-bashing with colonialism... and really, the cultivation of US and Soviet spheres of influence - and Chinese-aligned countries, once the Sino-Soviet split occurred - could be argued to represent the colonialism of the second half of the twentieth century.)
Steve Stirling at 18:16 on 2011-07-15
Whereas if you just say "Yes, these authors were incredibly racist, I still
think the stories have value but I don't for a second feel that those aspects of
them are defensible" then - in my experience, at least - people accept
that.



-- people generally do accept it if you grant their claim to ideological hegemony and allow them to set the terms of discourse.

Whereas if you say "Fuck you, the ideological horse you rode in on, and your basic philosophical assumptions too" they get testy and cranky and call you names.
Steve Stirling at 18:22 on 2011-07-15
With respect to HEART OF DARKNESS, how anyone could take one of the most damning denunciations of colonialism and exposures of the "civilizing mission" turn it into evidence that the author was "incredibly racist" would be beyond me, if I hadn't had a lot of experience of people tying themselves into knots to suit their preconceptions.

You could make an argument that Leopold of the Belgians was incredibly racist, since he did manage to kill off about 40% of the population of the Congo Basin, all of them black people.

But in point of fact, Leopold wasn't particularly racist. He was just incredibly ruthless and a thoroughgoing evil shit. A lot of the people who -worked- for Leopold and his concessionaires were racists, in the sense that they considered black people subhuman, but that's the Edwardian era for you. Leopold, I think, would just as cheerfully have massacred and robbed the Congolese regardless of their physical appearance if he'd been able to get away with it.

(This is a guy whose personal habits got him blacklisted from the brothels of Paris in the late 19th century.)
Steve Stirling at 18:25 on 2011-07-15
I mean nothing comparable to the thirty years war happened in Africa before the
coming of Europeans and one might argue before the colonization in the 19th
century.


-- boy, you -really- don't know much African history, do you?

When it comes to the massacre-and-atrocity competition, there's really not much to chose between any of the continents. They're all on about the same level.
Arthur B at 19:23 on 2011-07-15
-- people generally do accept it if you grant their claim to ideological hegemony and allow them to set the terms of discourse.

Whereas if you say "Fuck you, the ideological horse you rode in on, and your basic philosophical assumptions too" they get testy and cranky and call you names.

So, Steve, are you denying that Howard ever expressed racist views in his fiction? Because even if he wasn't a 24/7 racist who constantly belittled people of other racist, that doesn't mean he never expressed racist views, and nor does that mean that he didn't have a pattern of promoting a theory of history which was predicated on extremely flaky theories of race.

I am able to accept both the fact that Howard was an extremely capable and entertaining author who is vitally important to the foundations of sword and sorcery and made major contributions to other fictional subgenres, and that he was a man who regularly expressed views which we today cannot fail to recognise as racist, and which at the time could probably have been argued to be racist by at least some definitions as well (based, as they were, on the implicit assumption that race and culture are more or less the same thing and history is a long story of racial conflict).

The first fact about Howard does not negate the second, the second does not negate the first; they both contribute to the picture of a complicated man whose output is required reading for any serious scholar of the history of fantasy, but at the same time may fail to amuse or entertain people for whom his racial philosophies leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

The "Howard wasn't a racist" argument is not just overdefensive, it also requires you to flat-out ignore important elements of the man's own philosophy as he expressed very clearly in his writing. As a result, it's a gambit which tries to defend Howard but in fact does him a disservice by attempting to obscure or gloss over his actual opinions.
Steve Stirling at 21:05 on 2011-07-15

So, Steve, are you denying that Howard ever expressed racist views in his fiction?


-- if you mean "did Howard consistently depict black or other "nonwhite" people as inferior in intelligence or other desirable qualities to white people because of their heredity", which I would say was a pretty good definition of white racism, then the answer is "no".

Racism isn't an attitude or an action, it's a set of beliefs.

On that I can give you chapter and verse -- starting with Solomon Kane's witch-doctor mentor, who is rather obviously smarter than Kane, as well as much closer to what's generally called "sanity".

If you mean, did he ever express dislike of/hostility towards black people, yeah, occasionally.(*) Or at least he didn't hold up his hands in horror when a character does so.

If you mean did he have an essentialist view of ethnic cultural characteristics, yeah, of course he did. Pretty well everyone did then except a few 'advanced' anthropologists.

As always, the devil is in the details -- or the defining of terms.

(*)take his story "Black Canaan", for example, in which a white Southern guy goes home to his rural neighborhood to help supress a black uprising masterminded by a Voodoo hougan. There's plenty of racial hostility expressed on all sides in that one. But the reason for the desire of the blacks to rise up against the whites isn't their "animalistic nature" or anything of that sort; it's just that the whites are oppressing the hell out of the blacks and the blacks don't like it. This is accepted matter-of-factly by all parties in the story. The whites want to oppress and exploit the blacks, and the blacks understandably want to kill all the whites.
Steve Stirling at 21:09 on 2011-07-15
who regularly expressed views which we today cannot fail to recognise as
racist,


-- in the immortal words of Tonto, "what you mean 'we', white man?"

In other words, this sentence contains an attempt at privileging your own opinions and setting yourself up as an authority, as representing some sort of valorzed "we" exercising power over what can permissibly be said.

Rather than just another guy with a computer.

So when you use "racism" I treat it as an attempt at rhetorical clubbing, rather than an actual argument.

As I said, going after people's assumptions this way drives many of them crazy.
Arthur B at 21:22 on 2011-07-15
In other words, this sentence contains an attempt at privileging your own opinions and setting yourself up as an authority, as representing some sort of valorzed "we" exercising power over what can permissibly be said.

I'm not saying you can't say that Howard wasn't racist. What I am saying is that that's a statement which simply lacks credibility. You've every right to say whatever you like, but you can't expect me to lend credence to a position which you have failed to support and is not supportable.

In your previous post to this you listed several different ways in which racism can be defined, and in fact conceded that Howard's views did in fact coincide with at least some of them. It therefore seems incredible to say that Howard did not express racist views, unless you're going to go out of the way to argue that essentialist views of ethnic cultural characteristics aren't racist. That is a position which, again, I don't think you can credibly support, but if you think you can by all means go ahead. Maybe you will surprise me.

Furthermore, I'm firmly of the opinion that racism is as much about attitude and actions as it is beliefs. It's quite conceivable to have a situation where nobody seriously believes that black people are actually inferior on an ideological basis - or, at least, nobody is willing to claim to believe that - but at the same time inequalities are perpetuated through simple thoughtlessness.

Again, I'm not claiming to control the argument, I'm not saying you can't say whatever you like. What I am saying is that you can't say whatever you like and expect not to have people draw conclusions from what you say. You've drawn your own conclusions about my arguments, you can bet I'm drawing my own conclusions about yours.
Steve Stirling at 21:33 on 2011-07-15
A good example of the shifting definitions of terms is EARTH ABIDES, written in the late 1940's by George R. Stewart.

(Classic boffo post-apocalyptic, universal-plague story; much more realistic than most, too. No omnicompetent Heinleinesque heroes restoring civilization single-handed.)

The hero, Ish, is a smart but rather impractical and passive field ecologist is one of the survivors of a disease that wipes out around 99.98% of the human race; judging from his experiences, there are only a few thousand individuals left in the US.

In the course of the book he meets and falls in love with "Em", a woman of about his age who survived in San Francisco, who becomes his partner and the matriarch/co-founder of their little tribe.

When she becomes pregnant it's revealed that she was, before the disaser, "passing for white", and that her mother was part-black. She tells him because she wants to give him an honest choice about things. Ish says, essentially, that crap doesn't mean squat now.

He also remarks to himself in internal monologue that it explains a few things about her personality; her forgiving, accepting nature, for example.

Now, does this make Stewart a racist? Ghu, no, by any sensible definition of the term. In fact, from his biography and internal clues in his work (he wrote some other stuff too) I'd say he was probably a fairly orthodox lefty Democrat of the New Deal period. Everyone thought that way, including a lot of black civil rights leaders.

(If Ish had been shown to 'nobly' spurn Em and go looking for a pure white woman, -that- would have been racist, or at least ethnocentric.)

Arthur B at 21:59 on 2011-07-15
Now, does this make Stewart a racist?

Honestly, I'd have to see the context. If Stewart was saying that black people, or mixed-race people with black heritage, are inherently forgiving and accepting, then hell yes that's racist. If he was saying that Em personally is more forgiving and accepting of others due to her personal experience of racism in the pre-apocalypse era, without suggesting that this is inherently to be something to be expected of all individuals who undergo the same experiences, then I'd be inclined to say no. If it's somewhere in between, then I'd probably need more datapoints.

Assuming the first case, since this seems to be what you're driving at...

Ghu, no, by any sensible definition of the term.

By "any sensible definition" you mean "any definition absolutely limited to situations involving one person being deliberately mean to someone else, and consciously making that decision on the basis of their race".

Which is a definition so narrow as to be almost useless in any sort of anti-racist effort. If you restrict the definition of "racism" to that, then you can declare the anti-racist struggle to be "won" once you drive the likes of the Klan and the Aryan Nation out of mainstream political discourse, even though this does nothing to address pervasive social attitudes that perpetuate the little racisms people indulge in every day.

Simply declaring that "everyone thought that way" does not mean the society as a whole was not racist due to accepting essentialist ideas about different races and their positions in relation to each other. To say that New Deal America wasn't racist because everyone believed in that sort of thing is like saying medieval Europe wasn't Christian because everyone went to church.

This is a delightful tangent but appears to have almost nothing to do with my previous comment.
Steve Stirling at 22:22 on 2011-07-15
In your previous post to this you listed several different ways in which racism
can be defined, and in fact conceded that Howard's views did in fact coincide
with at least some of them.


-- OK, need to be more explicit. I listed several different ways in which racism can be defined, and made it plain that the other ones I mentioned were so broad that they are deeply stupid.

If a theory can explain everything, it explains nothing, as the saying goes.
Steve Stirling at 22:25 on 2011-07-15
What I am saying is that that's a statement which simply lacks credibility.


-- by your definition of the term; it should be clear, however, that I just categorically reject your definition.

I could classify all nationalism as xenophobia, and then denounce anyone who put up a flag as a terrible "incredible" xenophobe.

I could, but it wouldn't say anything about the guy with the flag; it would just mean that I had my head up my ass,

And, of course, it would make any rational discussion of -actual- xenophobia impossible. Narrow, precise definitions illuminate meaning; broad ones disguise it.
Steve Stirling at 22:27 on 2011-07-15
Again, I'm not claiming to control the argument, I'm not saying you can't say
whatever you like.


-- yeah, you are, you're just doing it in a passive-aggressive way.
Steve Stirling at 22:31 on 2011-07-15

By "any sensible definition" you mean "any definition absolutely limited to
situations involving one person being deliberately mean to someone else, and
consciously making that decision on the basis of their race".

.



-- yeah, that's pretty much how I'd define it, if you add speech to action there.

Which is a definition so narrow as to be almost useless in any sort of
anti-racist effort.


-- or, to put it another way, it knocks the rhetorical sword out of the hand of those who want to delegitimize opposing views by (falsely) classifying them as "racist", while using a definition so broad it encompasses "anyone who disagrees with me".

As I said, people get cranky when you do this. They don't like having the sword knocked out of their hand.
valse de la lune at 22:34 on 2011-07-15
-- yeah, you are, you're just doing it in a passive-aggressive way.

Dude, take it from a woman of color who's been side-eyeing this discussion like a pro--you're being talked to with great patience.
Steve Stirling at 22:35 on 2011-07-15
Simply declaring that "everyone thought that way" does not mean the society as a
whole was not racist due to accepting essentialist ideas about different races
and their positions in relation to each other.


-- yeah, actually, it does. Ideas don't exist in isolation; they only exist in their historical context. In other words, you can't be "racist" as such; only "racist" (or "patriotic" or "humanitarian" or whatever) in relation to the rest of your society.

It's positional and relative, not an absolute.
Steve Stirling at 22:40 on 2011-07-15
It's quite conceivable to have a situation where nobody seriously believes that
black people are actually inferior on an ideological basis - or, at least,
nobody is willing to claim to believe that - but at the same time inequalities
are perpetuated through simple thoughtlessness.


-- in that case there wouldn't be any racism. Social injustice, quite possibly, or just individual selfishness, or ethnic chauvinism(*), but without the ideological belief in a) race as a physical, hereditary category and b) race as a marker of superiority/inferiority, there's no racism.

(*) Serbs and Croats have been known to engage in extremely negative behavior towards each other, for example, but there's no racism involved.
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2011-07-15
And, of course, it would make any rational discussion of -actual- xenophobia impossible. Narrow, precise definitions illuminate meaning; broad ones disguise it.

Actually, broad terms are pretty useful when discussing pervasive phenomena which take a wide variety of different forms.

Defining "racism" as you have done is like defining "weather" to mean only "snow". It identifies a particularly extreme form of the thing under discussion but ignores many other manifestations of the same concept.

Ideas don't exist in isolation; they only exist in their historical context. In other words, you can't be "racist" as such; only "racist" (or "patriotic" or "humanitarian" or whatever) in relation to the rest of your society.

It's positional and relative, not an absolute.

Cool.

But we're living in the funky cyberpunk global society of 2011, right? So let's talk about how we see things today rather than pretending we're New Deal Democrats using their terminology to discuss matters. Actual people from that era already said all that needed to be said from that particular perspective.
Orion at 22:45 on 2011-07-15
In other words, you can't be "racist" as such; only "racist" (or "patriotic" or "humanitarian" or whatever) in relation to the rest of your society.


Unless I'm misreading this, I'm strongly tempted to conclude that this is the silliest thing I've read all week. Are you going to tell me Caesar wasn't a monarchist and the pope isn't Catholic, I'm going to say that it's perfectly fair to attribute the attributes of a particular historical society to the members of that society who are not in active dissent.

Also, what Pyro said. It's a little rich for you to accuse others of trying to "control the conversation" when you've adopted a professorial tone the entire time, tossing off lots of non-sequitur generalizations which imply expertise without directly addressing the topic. (Which isn't to say you haven't made some insightful comments, because you certainly have)
Arthur B at 22:48 on 2011-07-15
Social injustice, quite possibly, or just individual selfishness, or ethnic chauvinism(*), but without the ideological belief in a) race as a physical, hereditary category and b) race as a marker of superiority/inferiority, there's no racism.

But racism isn't just an explicitly declared ideology, it's also a widespread pattern of implicit assumptions and deeply rooted biases that, taken together, create a situation where ye and me enjoy a certain "white privilege" over people of colour which (hopefully) we did not seek, desire or condone.

(*) Serbs and Croats have been known to engage in extremely negative behavior towards each other, for example, but there's no racism involved.

Then why are certain very famous Serbs on trial for genocide right now?
Arthur B at 22:52 on 2011-07-15
(Oh, I should point out that some Croatian generals have been found guilty of genocide lately too, but Radovan Karadzic's arrest was the most recent relevant news item I'd heard about lately so he was on my mind.)
Rami at 23:27 on 2011-07-15
Social injustice, quite possibly, or just individual selfishness, or ethnic chauvinism(*), but without the ideological belief in a) race as a physical, hereditary category and b) race as a marker of superiority/inferiority, there's no racism.


I'm confused here. Given that "ethnic chauvinism" relies on a) ethnicity as a physical, hereditary category and b) ethnicity as a marker of superiority/inferiority, how is it any different from racism?
Cammalot at 01:59 on 2011-07-16

Racism isn't an attitude or an action, it's a set of beliefs.


OK -- I am almost to the point where I need, for my own emotional health, to bow out of this thread entirely... but I do think it would be good to mention that I don't think we are all working with the same shared vocabulary here, which is obviously going preclude any sort of consensus, or even the mildest understanding. And in this particular case I am really quite curious as to how that might have happened.

So, um, where are we getting the definition of racism that doesn't involve actions and attitudes, please? And why would this a good definition for me to accept and to base arguments on in future?
Cammalot at 02:28 on 2011-07-16
Also, please delineate the specific difference between an attitude and a set of beliefs? (Aside from plural versus singular.)
Vermisvere at 04:47 on 2011-07-16
Also, please delineate the specific difference between an attitude and a set of beliefs?

I think that the case of Steve S. here, attitude denotes openly direct behavior whilst belief relates to what you privately think.

i.e Going after the Indian shopkeeper at the local store with a shotgun whilst yelling "GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY, YOU ALIEN!"

as opposed to

i.e Holding a seemingly civil conversation with aforementioned Indian shopkeeper whilst privately thinking "What filthy, weed-chewing scum."

Do correct me if I'm wrong, though.

-- in that case there wouldn't be any racism. Social injustice, quite possibly, or just individual selfishness, or ethnic chauvinism(*), but without the ideological belief in a) race as a physical, hereditary category and b) race as a marker of superiority/inferiority, there's no racism.

Seeing as racism is in itself a form of social injustice, I have a hard time understanding what you're getting at with this particular statement.
Orion at 06:11 on 2011-07-16
He's saying the inverse--that although racism is by definition a social injustice, there are other injustices which are not racist. For example, a group of Europeans might happen to colonize an area and oppress the local people, but if they didn't happen to believe that those people were fundamentally biologically different they would not be racists.

I find this line of argument a bit silly, but there it is.
valse de la lune at 07:29 on 2011-07-16
Orion: Unless I'm misreading this, I'm strongly tempted to conclude that this is the silliest thing I've read all week. Are you going to tell me Caesar wasn't a monarchist and the pope isn't Catholic, I'm going to say that it's perfectly fair to attribute the attributes of a particular historical society to the members of that society who are not in active dissent.

Not just you. This is pure, undiluted bullshit defense of racism by trying to be all ~intellecshul~ and relativistic about it. Extremely insulting.
Cammalot at 08:08 on 2011-07-16
I confess, though, that I am perversely fascinated by the "I categorically reject your definition" and the "why are you trying to control all the definitions" combo.
Wardog at 12:39 on 2011-07-16
Okay folks, let me get my moderator hat on. I would just like to apologise to everyone for not having come in earlier, wearing said hat, but I've just moved house and I have no internet. In short: this discussion has ceased to be interesting, in so far as it ever was, and I would like it to stop now.

Steve, Ferretbrain is not your blog.

As Orion has observed, your tone has been didactic throughout, and you seem to see your role here as being to educate us in the correct way to think about, and discuss, the issues you're interested in.

We are perfectly happy to listen to what you have to say but you should understand that we have, in fact, heard quite a lot of it before and many of us cannot be bothered re-hash the same tired arguments.

We are not the social justice police but we try to keep this a relatively inclusive space and we take a particuarly dim view of you, for example, taking it upon yourself to tell us what racism is when some of us have personally experienced it.

Steve Stirling at 08:15 on 2011-07-19
Then why are certain very famous Serbs on trial for genocide right now


-- behavior towards Bosniaks, IIRC. Who are, of course, of the same "race" as the Serbs, to the limited extent as the term "race" has any real meaning.

Steve Stirling at 08:17 on 2011-07-19
We are not the social justice police but we try to keep this a relatively
inclusive space and we take a particuarly dim view of you, for example, taking
it upon yourself to tell us what racism is when some of us have personally
experienced it.


-- that's no reason to privilege anyone's viewpoint.
Steve Stirling at 08:19 on 2011-07-19
Seeing as racism is in itself a form of social injustice, I have a hard time
understanding what you're getting at with this particular statement.


-- racism is a form of social injustice, but social injustice includes many forms of behavior that are not racism.
Steve Stirling at 08:22 on 2011-07-19
Do correct me if I'm wrong, though.


-- no, that's about right. The person who attacks the Indian is no more racist than the one who privately wishes he could but doesn't dare. The racism (as such) consists of the belief system. Whether it's manifested in behavior depends on circumstances.
Arthur B at 08:31 on 2011-07-19
OK, I'm dousing this fire before it flares up again.

Steve, you were asked very clearly and very simply to back away from this conversation because it's been generating more heat than light lately. You've ignored that. So I banned you. If you think this is a gross injustice I suppose you could contact the editor to plead your case but given that you've all but completely ignored her statement as moderator other than to accuse her of bias I don't think your odds are that great.

For what it's worth, accusing other people of trying to control the conversation whilst, at the same time, point-blank refusing to accept any definitions of terms other than your own is pretty rich. Equally, it's not privileging someone's viewpoint to ask you to show a shred of respect for it.

I am sure you are probably going to just assume we are ideologically blinkered and that I'm banning you because you were making me upset with your cutting sword of truth. I assure you that's not the case; I'm banning you because you seem intent on pushing your own ideology (you do have one, you know, even if you aren't conscious of it) and seem to have no qualms about how you behave towards other people in doing so.

To everyone else, apologies for letting this run on for as long as it has.
Steve Stirling at 08:32 on 2011-07-19
I'm confused here. Given that "ethnic chauvinism" relies on a) ethnicity as a physical, hereditary category and b) ethnicity as a marker of superiority/inferiority, how is it any different from racism?


-- no it doesn't rely on that.

To take the example I gave, Croats and Serbs are physically indistinguishable. They speak the same language and are descended from the same South Slav groups. And both acknowledge this common ancestry and that they're the same "race" in the modern sense(*).

But they're different -ethnic/national groups-, because of their somewhat different histories; Croats were converted to Catholic Christianity, Serbs to Orthodox, they use different alphabets, the Serbs were part of the Ottoman Empire for a long time while the Croats were mostly dominated by Germans and Magyars, there was a medieval Serbian kingdom of some size, etc.

At times -- 1919, for example -- they've emphasized their common South Slav-ness; at others (during WWII, or more recently) large segments of each group have wanted nothing so much in all the world as to kill every one of the other group, and have tried hard to do so. That's ethnic chauvinism.

(*) back in the 19th century, "race" was used ambiguously, both in the sense that it's popularly used now (people would refer to the "white race" or the "Negro race"), and in a much more narrow sense more or less as we'd use "nationality" or "ethnic group"; people referred to the "German race" or the "English race".
Steve Stirling at 08:35 on 2011-07-19
Pyrofennec

Dude, take it from a woman
of color who's been side-eyeing this discussion like a pro--you're being talked to with great patience.


-- y'know, I've had people try to kill me because of my skin color. That, in itself, gives me absolutely no special insight whatsoever into "racism".
Arthur B at 08:36 on 2011-07-19
Hmmm, interesting, apparently banned people can post one last message if they were typing a comment when they were banned.

/pops off to ideas and issues section.
Rami at 10:20 on 2011-07-19
Oops, sorry Arthur, you found a bug. Fixed now, for what it's worth.

I hate it when we have to ban people. I shouldn't be surprised, I've been online for long enough, but it's still depressing to come across yet another person who persists in being WRONG on the INTERNET...
Dan H at 10:28 on 2011-07-19
Just to be clear, I'm pretty sure Steve wasn't banned for being "wrong on the internet" but for ignoring a direct moderator warning to drop it.
Arthur B at 10:42 on 2011-07-19
That is, in fact, precisely why the banhammer came down.
Wardog at 10:42 on 2011-07-19
What Dan said.

It's basically a matter of etiquette.
Rami at 10:43 on 2011-07-19
Oh yes, indeed. It was the persistence that was operative for me. To continue to be talked down to after he's been specifically asked to stop talking down to people - that makes everyone's experience unpleasant.
Wardog at 10:45 on 2011-07-19
Although there is a special place in hell reserved for people who name-drop Beowulf without having a clue what they're talking about ;)
Rami at 10:48 on 2011-07-19
...and my goal, at least, which was to drop him off the front page and the first page-ful of "recent comments", has been achieved.
Wardog at 10:50 on 2011-07-19
I hate it when we have to ban people.


*comfort*

I know, it's shite. But, to be fair, I think we've only ever banned 2 people - one for being actively and openly racist, and the second for paying no heed to moderation, so I think we're doing pretty well really :)
Dan H at 10:52 on 2011-07-19
To continue to be talked down to after he's been specifically asked to stop
talking down to people - that makes everyone's experience unpleasant.


But Rami, why should we privilege your desire not to be talked down to over his desire to talk down to you?
Wardog at 10:55 on 2011-07-19
Okay, although is kind of funny we should let this go, folks. It's been dealt with, let's move on.
Arthur B at 11:11 on 2011-07-19
To change the subject: AHAHAHAHA oh my God look at the new cover for the Wordsworth Kane collection they did.

Seriously, wow.
Arthur B at 13:27 on 2011-07-19
And they've done an edition of a certain Text Factor winner (the one which isn't still in copyright, obviously) in the same series which looks even sillier. Lolz.
Wardog at 13:46 on 2011-07-19
The Woman In (a) White (Hoodie).
Wardog at 13:46 on 2011-07-19
I have no crinoline and I must scream?
Wardog at 14:31 on 2011-07-19
Or possibly just.

WHAT THE DEUCE WHAT THE DEUCE?!
Wardog at 14:33 on 2011-07-19
Okay, why am I the only person playing this game?

:(
Arthur B at 14:41 on 2011-07-19
Sorry, I was caught up trying to find Marian Halcombe in her ninja getup hiding amongst the trees in the background.
Cammalot at 19:43 on 2011-07-19
I was just distressed.

That thing is distressing.
Cammalot at 00:45 on 2011-07-20
(Oddly I don't find the Kane one nearly as distressing.)

For some reason, the "Woman in White" one keeps forcibly driving my mind toward "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" instead.
Michal at 01:43 on 2011-07-20
Egad. I...I...(looks again)...the woman...and the fish eye lens...and...I *sputters*

That is one awful, AWFUL cover.

On the subject of the Kane cover, I think my edition's got one that, while certainly better composed, is also infinitely more offensive. Good ol' Baen, you do know your target audience.
Arthur B at 07:24 on 2011-07-20
Cammalot:
For some reason, the "Woman in White" one keeps forcibly driving my mind toward "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" instead.

The Girl With Empty Pits of Shadow for Eyes?

Michal:
On the subject of the Kane cover, I think my edition's got one that, while certainly better composed, is also infinitely more offensive.

Sadly, it's also infinitely more accurate.
Wardog at 10:55 on 2011-07-20
On the subject of the Kane cover, I think my edition's got one that, while certainly better composed, is also infinitely more offensive


Oh.

My.

Word.

At first I was just confused because it looks like the unconscious woman is growing out of his side like some kind of fungal growth. But then I saw the black dude under his boot. But I also suspect he's just lying there thinking "I have to get off this cover."
Arthur B at 10:57 on 2011-07-20
I just want to know where Kane got a flintlock laser from.
Michal at 01:58 on 2011-07-21
It's par for the course for a Baen cover. All the Baen Howard reprints feature a white dude either standing over ethnic-looking corpses of some variety or another, or actively making said corpses. Like this one.

*Looks at name on cover* Wait a second...
Vermisvere at 04:14 on 2011-07-21
*Looks at name on cover* Wait a second...

Introduction by S.M. Stirling?

Are my eyes deceiving me, or did I just see...*scrolls upwards through the comments section*

Yo, man, that's a serious case of deja-vu right there.
Wardog at 09:27 on 2011-07-21
Wow ... I nearly rofled.
Arthur B at 11:27 on 2011-07-21
*Looks at name on cover* Wait a second...

D:
Cammalot at 15:28 on 2011-07-21
On the subject of the Kane cover, I think my edition's got one that, while certainly better composed, is also infinitely more offensive. Good ol' Baen, you do know your target audience.

Well goddamn.

Heh -- I had a very bad experience with that link. I opened it on a very small screen and had to scroll down to see the whole of it, so my inner monologue went something like: “Hmm. Ugh. Squick, squick, squick, squick ARRRGH HOLY FUCK!!”

Baen really does this? A lot? In this day and age?!
Are my eyes deceiving me, or did I just see...*scrolls upwards through the comments section*

Whoa. Confluence...
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in December 2007