Moments of Permanence

About Recent Entries

How America dodged a fascist uprising, part two: America's stable, non-functional government Feb. 16th, 2013 @ 11:02 am
It's taken me a little extra time to get started on writing this part out. I think this is because I honestly, still, can't decide whether I think the American system is a net positive or a net negative.

Allow me to explain.

Another one of the historical prerequisites for a fascist takeover of government is an unstable democratic government preceding it. When democracy falls apart and clearly isn't working, people start wanting an authoritarian system that can actually get something done.

The German Weimar Republic already had the odds stacked against it. It was a democratic republic in a country where most people hadn't been particularly unhappy about the authoritarian monarchy, and hardly anyone had wanted a republic or a democracy before suddenly they had one. It came into being when the nation was in a state of shock and trauma, having just fought a gruelling, painful war - one most people had thought they would win, until suddenly they had already lost.

And it was hobbled at the outset by the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Small wonder, then, that the average lifespan of a government in the Weimar Republic was a matter of months.

In Italy - and in France's Third Republic - the reasons were different, but the problem was the same. Governments formed and fell apart within months, over and over. Political chaos means nothing is ever really achieved; it's rare that government policy lasts long enough to have an effect on anything. The country runs on bureaucratic inertia.

In some cases, this doesn't actually require fresh elections to be held. It can result from shifting political alliances, if the parliamentary body is filled with minority parties who form government in coalition. In other cases, it will require new general elections, because in most parliamentary-type systems, if the government becomes deadlocked, then it is dissolved.

This isn't always a result of a total and irreversible breakdown, mind you. Famously (at least in this country), it happened in Australia in 1975. (Controversially, but constitutionally.) The Government became deadlocked; the Labor Party held the Lower House, but the Opposition controlled the Senate, and refused to pass any of the appropriations (generally referred to as supply) bills that fund the operation of government.

This resulted in a Double Dismissal election, where every seat, in both Houses, was up for re-election at once.

How This Applies To America

America's House of Representatives is not functioning very well, but it's functioning. The American Senate, however, is a trainwreck that would be comical if it didn't have such comprehensive ramifications for the country and the entire freakin' world.

The Senate can't pass a budget, nor can it get through a number of truly vital confirmation hearings for presidential appointments. The Senate can't get through just about anything, because the Senate allows for so-called filibustering that doesn't require actual effort. Essentially, any single Senator can block pretty much anything until further notice.

In most systems, this would result in new elections being called, on the grounds that the knuckleheads currently there are clearly incompetent.

However, it's debatable how much this would actually bring about change. Especially when the House is falling apart, too; so many of the worst offenders would probably be re-elected, because most seats in Congress are terrifyingly safe.

So on the one hand, America's system of scheduled-for-always elections means that government is stable, even when it's broken. On the other hand, it means that, well, government is stable, even when it's broken.

I can't decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing overall, but at least in the context of the last decade, it's one of the reasons why America couldn't be given over to fascist dictatorship; democracy maintains the appearance of functionality, even if the democratic government doesn't.

How America dodged a fascist uprising, part one: the Alien Other, and its absence Feb. 7th, 2013 @ 11:23 am
Despite the histrionic claims in right-wing tantrums, now, or left-wing tantrums, circa the Bush era, the United States of America is not now, and has not yet ever been, a fascist state, and it's not becoming one.

But, in the last few years, it's come amazingly close to following the historical precedents for one. Actual fascist states have only happened a few times, and while no two fascisms are identical (being that fascism is characterised by ultra-nationalism, and no two nations are identical), there are general categories of circumstances that make them a possibility.

In no particular order (seriously, this is not in order of importance at all, because I'm basically thinking into a DW update window), I shall endeavour to go through them, starting with:

The Alien Within (Usually Jews)
In which I explain anti-Jewish sentiment as part of fascism. )

In summary: a people who are not like us, but are among us, and they are harmful to society, zomg!

[1] Fascism, as a term, was coined by Mussolini. However, the Alliance Francaise, despite predating Mussolini's rise by decades, qualifies as a fascist movement if anything does, not least because a lot of Mussolini's philosophy was inspired or taken directly from the writings of the idealogue behind the AF.

Why This Didn't Happen In America

Well, the Jews wouldn't work, because for a bunch of reasons, some of them sensible, some of them kind of insane (e.g. "Israel is a prerequisite for the Rapture"), the American far-right is hard-line Zionist. And you can't really make a coherent anti-Semitic narrative without also going anti-Zionist, so even the most ardent anti-Semites on the American right have to be kind of covert about it.

Communists lost their power as a serious threat with the collapse of the USSR. Some American right-wingers have picked up a narrative that places "the gays" in that category, but the problem with gay people as an ideological hate fixture is that people will, inevitably, have gay family members, or meet people who are "one of us" and then find out that they're also gay, and basically, gay isn't an ethnic group.

A number of right-wing groups and politicians have made something of an attempt with Latinos, and, in localised areas, have succeeded to a terrifying degree. (See: Sheriff Arpaio, who I had a piece about posted on Shakesville before I broke up with Shakesville hard enough that it just took me ten minutes of going through my tags for old posts to remember what the site was even called.)

However, while localised fascism has absolutely taken hold in parts of America, this hasn't worked on a widespread basis. I think the reason is basically geography. America is huge, and immigration is a progression. You can't make the anti-immigrant fervour take hold in the same way in Ohio or Wyoming, because the immigrants aren't a presence there, certainly not sufficient to make people flip out. At the same time, in states like Texas, there are too many *legal* Mexican and Central American immigrants for an overwhelming consensus of hate. There are too many people for whom they *aren't* Other.

Mostly. You still have, you know, Arizona.

Perhaps not new to you, but: To My Old Master Jul. 7th, 2012 @ 07:42 am
So, we start here, with a beautiful letter written by a freed slave to his former master:
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.

That's not actually the best part of the letter (the final line is), but really, the whole thing deserves to be read. (There is a line that is slightly heartbreaking, in reference to past tragic sufferings of slavery, but they are, at least, past.)

What's also supremely nifty, though, is followed it up, and did some research into what happened to the family; the short version is that they appear to have done quite well, and the gent in question seems to have lived until at least his seventies.

History is in the connectedness of things. Dec. 1st, 2011 @ 09:19 am
A few weeks ago, I was talking with friends, and was reminded of a book I had once yearned to own.

I read part of it in the course of researching an essay for a History class. It was The Collapse of the Third Republic, by William L. Shirer, about the decline and implosion of the French Third Republic - a fascinating period in history, I assure you. I had an interesting discussion about the book with my lecturer at the time. Shirer also wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which was, naturally, about the Nazi regime.

Now, Shirer had lived in both - he was an American journalist working in Europe, and spent a significant chunk of the 30s in Berlin, but made frequent trips to Paris.

My lecturer thought that Shirer's chronicle of the Third Reich was excellent, but his work on the Third Republic was terrible - largely because, he felt, Shirer utterly loathed the Nazis, but loved the France of the Third Republic.

I don't disagree with that assessment of Shirer's feelings, but I don't think The Collapse of the Third Republic suffers for it as much as my lecturer did.

In any case, I'd read part of the book as part of my research, and I wanted to read the rest. However, I was hampered in this not least because at the time, the book in question was in demand for current courses, and had therefore been placed in the Reference section of the library, wherefrom books may not be borrowed.

I thought of buying my own copy, but found it was prohibitively expensive. (I don't recall what the price was then, but now, for example, a new copy would be 45 pounds from Amazon UK. This is quite a lot.)

However, when I was reminded of it a few weeks ago, I also thought of AbeBooks, that remarkable site that connects used booksellers all over the world to one search engine.

Sure enough, I found a copy of the book I desired at a price I could afford. A first edition, no less, because when it still comes out to less than $10 Australian including shipping, why not? (It helps that the Australian dollar is strong, right now - better than parity with the US dollar, which is pretty much unheard-of in my lifetime until now.)

All of which is preamble, more or less, to this:

With it, I ordered a couple of other books that looked interesting. One was a book called How Do You Like New York?, by Eva T. McAdoo. It's an ex-library copy, which made it very cheap.

As it turns out, it's also quite a fascinating historical artifact in itself.

The inside cover has a library plate for Tyler Junior College Library, recording that it was Presented By Hampson Gary.

On the flyleaf, there is this inscription:

Mr. Hampson Gary
with the compliments of
the Waldorf-Astoria
and of the author
Eva T. McAdoo

"About the City" Bureau
August 8th, 1939

I was intrigued.

Here is a book, signed by the author, apparently at the behest of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel - then eventually donated to the Tyler Junior College Library. Surely, I thought, this must have meant he was someone important... but in some way attached to Tyler Junior College.

Well. According to the US State Department, he was for a while a diplomat:
         1. Agent/Consul General (Egypt)
            Appointed: October 2, 1917
            Presentation of Credentials: February 7, 1918
            Termination of Mission: Left post December 7, 1919
                o Received by the Sultan on Feb 7, 1918.
         2. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary (Switzerland)
            Appointed: April 7, 1920
            Presentation of Credentials: June 3, 1920
            Termination of Mission: Left post about March 4, 1921

According to the Texas State Handbook, well. Here are some highlights:

- Born in Tyler, Texas, in 1873, where he later practiced law for a while.

- Served in the Spanish-American War, and the Texas National Guard.

- Was a member of the Texas House of Representatives and the University of Texas board of regents.

- Quoting directly: In 1914 he was appointed special counsel to the State Department to assist in matters arising out of the war situation in Europe. In 1915 he was appointed assistant solicitor in the State Department. In 1917 he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson as diplomatic agent and consul general to Egypt in charge of American interests in Palestine, Syria, and Arabia, where he formed a close friendship with Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, who commanded British forces in the Near East. In 1919 Gary was called to Paris to assist the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, and on April 1, 1920, he was appointed minister to Switzerland by President Wilson. Gary attended the First Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva as an observer for the United States.

He then resigned from diplomatic service, and practiced law for a few years, until:

- A staunch Democrat and friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, he was appointed a member of the first Federal Communications Commission in 1934 and later served as its general counsel, 1935–38. He was appointed solicitor of the United States Export-Import Bank in Washington, D.C., 1938–46.

So, at the point when he was given this book, he was the solicitor of the United States Export-Import Bank, which is a thread I have yet to follow, so I have no idea why this presentation - it was clearly not one to which he had a personal sentimental attachment, since it ended up in the possession of a Junior College library. (Where it was borrowed three times, the last time in 1967, before at some point being removed from circulation.)

But this is the fascination of history - how things tie in to other things. From this old, somewhat battered used book, I found the name of a man of whose existence I had not previously been aware in any way whatsoever, but who, it turns out, was linked to momentous events. So much in that mini-biography hints at so much more.

History is cool.
Tags: ,

How I know I am a history nerd (Captain America, not spoilery) Jul. 30th, 2011 @ 07:04 am
Last night Dean and I saw Captain America.

It was totally awesome, but there was one scene that made me twitch as follows:

It's 1943, and we see a bunch of American soldiers. Some of them are black. The scene is, in many ways, an extremely moving and awesome scene.

However, for me, it was partly spoiled by the voice in my head querying: "Wait, weren't the US troops still segregated then? I thought desegregation of the Army was Truman..."

It's okay, it's Marvelverse History, not Real World History, so multiracial US Army battalions can totally have existed, including the Japanese-American guy. (Yeah, you may be from California, buddy, but the United States still classed you as an "enemy alien".)

I justify a lot of things to myself that way with these movies.

My Obama birth certificate/Osama bin Laden's death conspiracy theory: Let me show you it. May. 15th, 2011 @ 01:52 pm
So, the other week, being interviewed on the Daily Show, Rachel Maddow rightly laughed at the idea that killing Osama bin Laden was somehow a distraction ploy from Obama's birth certificate.

She was right because that's a silly idea.

However, I have this suspicion, that just won't go away, that the release of the President's long form birth certificate and the killing of Osama bin Laden were nonetheless connected events.

My theory goes like this.

The Obama Administration knew they had a lock on bin Laden's location, and they knew they were looking to make a move. However, it was vital that not a hint of this escape, for at least two significant reasons:

1) So that no-one who might possibly risk conveying that information to bin Laden get any kind of tip-off.

This includes the American news media, who are, at present, not necessarily particularly responsible about what sort of information they broadcast, or speculate about, or, well, anything at all.

2) So that if something went wrong, they might have some hope of burying the whole thing, or at least limiting the damage it would do.

No-one there wants Obama to be the next Carter, with the monumental cockup that was made of an attempted operation in the Middle East in the last year of his presidency.

Which means they would have wanted to distract the White House press corps and the rest of the political media and punditry as comprehensively as possible. The upcoming major operation was going to see quite a few high-level Administration figures being preoccupied in ways that might otherwise seem abnormal, which could, if noticed, trigger wild speculation that the Administration was Up To Something - particularly if the operation went badly.

However, they had this thing, where for several years, a lot of people had been clamouring, for no actual worthwhile reason, for Mr Obama's original, long-form birth certificate. It was an issue the President clearly felt, even at the release press conference, was patently stupid. But it was one which would, without doubt, make one hell of a splash.

In many ways, I'd argue, it was not politically advantageous to release the certificate then. I think it would actually be in the Democrats' interest to have let Donald Trump continue clowning around for a while longer, keeping the Republican primary contenders disordered - there's no way to build towards any kind of coherent political message while he's there, America's own answer to Berlusconi, the centre of all the coverage.

But Trump's sideshow wasn't going to take everyone's attention off the actual Administration completely - if nothing else, they were getting watched for reactions, for anything that made for new stories.

The birth certificate did. For a few days, the media were all over it, centred on a complete non-issue that couldn't actually make Obama look bad. It was a circus that could have buried an awful lot, including a Navy SEAL mission in Pakistan that, say, raided a suspected Al-Qaida compound but didn't go that well - had that happened.

And nobody was paying attention to the senior Administration figures.

I'm not sure if they wouldn't have done it anyway, but Obama's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in some ways doubled down on that tactic - briefly putting the spotlight back on Donald Trump and giving everyone some more birth certificate-related footage and quotables to spin that story out some more.

If I'm right, I'm also in awe. I think it's brilliant statecraft - a way of controlling the media without, in any way, shape or form, constraining its freedom, using the chattering punditry against itself.

As an act of political sleight-of-hand, it's without parallel that I can recall.

Books! May. 12th, 2011 @ 01:42 pm
So, a couple of days ago, I got a package in the post from Angry Robot Books. I was mystified. I opened it, and there was a slip reading, "With Compliments."

And then I remembered: Matthew Hughes offered copies of the book to the first 25 people to e-mail him, promising him they'd blog about it in return. I did just that, and apparently I was one of the first 25, because I got one - and the book doesn't even get released until the end of this month.

Somehow I'd forgotten all about it until the book arrived. Still, I did promise to blog about it - and I will. This is not that blog entry because I haven't finished reading it yet, although I am a chunk of the way into it. (You can read the first 10,000 words at Mr Hughes' webpage. I'm a bit further in than that, but it's enough for you to get a solid idea of what it's like, I think.)

It's been a long time since I read a new novel - I'm quite a rereader of fiction, and an extensive devourer of new non-fiction. I'd forgotten, therefore, the feeling I hate that is part of why I so rarely do read new novels: the twisting, anxious feeling that I don't know what's going to happen, and yet there's this complicated situation the characters are in, and - aaaahhh!

Plus novels are so long, something I don't care about once I start reading them, but which seems daunting at the outset. (For the same reason, I hardly ever watch movies.)

Anyway, based on my impressions so far, if I were to condense my forthcoming review of this book into one of those, "If you like X, you'll love Y," statements, I'd put it this way: If you liked Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you'll probably enjoy The Damned Busters. It's not quite so apocalyptic - since, at least in part one of this trilogy, it's not so far actually about the Apocalypse - but it's the same kind of interestingly pretty-much-accurate-yet-unusual approach to theology and myth combined with wit and humour.

I like it, but I suspect I won't love it until I'm rereading it, and can appreciate it, engaging story and clever writing alike, without that anguished tension of not knowing what's going to happen.

I have to say, given I essentially have a review copy of this book and an obligation to review it since I promised to blog about it, I'm somewhat relieved that it's actually good.

I have some other books, too, but I actually paid money for them. I ordered some books from Amazon UK all of two days ago, taking advantage of the free shipping that now and for the time being extends to Australia, and they arrived today.

I have:

The Wonderful Future That Never Was, by Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics: visions of what the future would be like, from the first fifty-odd years of the magazine Popular Mechanics. Because that kind of thing is the kind of thing I utterly adore.

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth. Radical politics circa the turn of the last century, written as a sort of non-fiction novel.

Molotov's Magic Lanter: Uncovering Russia's Secret History, by Rachel Polonsky. Begun when the author was given access to Molotov's private library.

Red Plenty, by Francis Spufforth. "Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream."

Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962, by Megan Prelinger. I'm fascinated by the advertising of past eras - commercial or propaganda, but especially, really, propaganda, or propaganda-adjacent activities.

If I ever do get around to doing postgraduate work in history, one of my nominal thesis concepts is: How Vera Lynn Defeated Hitler: The Home Front of the Second World War, and it will be about the frequently-disregarded issue of how and why British civilians, especially the women who shouldered a burden that was almost without precedent, held it together and in doing so brought down the Wehrmacht.

Some things make the world a better place Apr. 1st, 2011 @ 10:33 pm
The East India Company. The British one. If you know anything about world history in the last, oh, four hundred years, you know of the East India Company. The world's first multinational corporation, the one that conquered entire countries and triggered wars to force widespread drug addiction on others.

It had its own army. It was a major force - at one point it generated half of world trade and was the employer of one third of the British workforce. It more-or-less controlled India entirely.

It is now owned by an Indian.

This? This makes the world a better place and should have been more widely reported, since I only just found out.

Maybe global warming isn't pollution-related at all - maybe it's caused by the friction generated by hundreds, if not thousands, of imperialistic, oppressive, colonialist English East India Company men rolling in their graves.

If I had access to a time machine, I now have a new use I would put it to: finding the most dickish of them (one would be so spoilt for choice), and telling them, preferably on their deathbeds, that one day their company would be owned by an Indian.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Dec. 22nd, 2010 @ 09:15 am
I need more icons. Really must get around to making some.

I've been playing AC:Bro. It's awesome. More details probably at some point, but it did produce one notable discussion.

Somewhat paraphrased, I think, due to imperfect recollection:

Me: Yeah, that's Lucrezia Borgia. Bitch.
Dean: My, that dress is... low-cut.
Me: It is. Because she's also trashy. And a bitch.
Dean: Right.
Me: The odd thing is, as far as I can tell, there's no such thing as misogynistic language, as long as you're applying it to Lucrezia Borgia. You also can't swear too much.
Dean: Unless the air is actually turning blue, you're not swearing enough?
Me: Right. Unless your mother has fainted, somewhere, and she doesn't know why, you are not swearing enough at Lucrezia Borgia. That bitch.

Because - well, you know, Borgias. And a Borgia who was one of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia. And, specifically, the version of her in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which, let us say, is not entirely sympathetic to the Renaissance Borgias, and is more-or-less presenting a historically realistic version of the Renaissance Church pornocracy.

Fun fact: For some reason, on the Internet, references to the pornocracy all seem to assume the tenth century period. I can't help but wonder if this is a Templar conspiracy, since my Prior Learnings all looked at the Renaissance, especially Borgia, popes like that - you know, the ones who were corrupt and venal enough to set off Protestantism.

*looks around more* Oh, that explains it - it's pure church history misogyny. Because the tenth century saw women holding a lot of the actual power, which plainly makes it much more evil than all the mind-boggling shit the Borgia popes got up to.

we love you Bafana Bafana, the amaSoccerBokke Jun. 12th, 2010 @ 11:09 pm
So, reading a book I picked up yesterday, I learned of the greatest pirate who ever lived: Shi Xianggu.

Shi Xianggu was born in poverty, and became a prostitute, and remained one until she, among others, was captured by pirates. Their leader, Zheng Yi, decided to celebrate his fleet's success by taking a wife, and the twenty most beautiful prostitutes they had captured were brought to him.

Shi Xianggu was apparently the standout beauty among them; he chose her. As he was loosening her bonds, she attacked him, spitting and scratching.

Zheng Yi apparently liked his women spirited; he offered her great riches to be his bride.

Shi Xianggu did not lack spirit; she demanded equal command of his fleets and half his piratical plunder.

Zheng Yi agreed.

Together, they expanded their fleet and their power, more-or-less taking control of the extremely busy shipping lanes, repeatedly kicking the sterns of the Imperial navy, including when the Imperial Navy requested European assistance as well.

Their relationship appears not to have suffered when Zheng Yi kidnapped the fifteen-year-old son of a fisherman to be his "adopted son" and lover; indeed, after Zheng Yi died (blown overboard in a gale), the young man, Zhang Bao, became Shi Xianggu's second-in-command, and later second husband.

Because, after Zheng Yi's death, Shi Xianggu took sole command of the fleet, including almost 80,000 pirates.

Their dominance of the seas was not broken by the Imperial Navy. Their fleet had actually become six fleets, and one of the commanders of the lesser fleets got a bit too big for his boots, and attacked Zhang Bao. Zhang Bao won a tactical victory, but the rebel fleet commander then turned himself and his men in to the authorities, in exchange for pardons. He even took a commission in the Imperial Navy.

Maintaining the tactical astuteness which was one of her strengths, Shi Xianggu recognised that the tide was turning against piracy, and also made peace with the authorities. Of her tens of thousands of pirates, less than 400 were actually punished, and many also joined the Imperial Navy.

She herself retired, aged 25, and thereafter ran a brothel, gambling house, and possibly smuggling ring. She died aged 59, a ripe old age for the early 19th century.

I have summarised extensively, obviously, but seriously, this woman is impressive as all hell. One of the few surviving portraits of her apparently depicts her sabre in hand on a tilting deck fighting shoulder to shoulder with her men.


I was briefly troubled that I'd never heard of her - was it a misogynistic or racist bias in my learnings? She was Chinese and a woman, after all.

And then I realised that it's more that I've not studied the history of piracy at all, because I tried to think who I had thought was the greatest pirate who ever lived, and then I realised that the only pirates whose names I could think of offhand were Long John Silver and Jack Sparrow, one of whom is fictional and the other of whom technically existed but I don't know anything about his actual real life, only his Treasure Island version, and primarily his Muppet Treasure Island version. Since I'm guessing he was not actually played by Tim Curry in reality, I think what this has shown is that I know amazingly little about actual piracy.

Ways in which piracy affected events on land? Yes, actually. Piracy itself? Apparently not.

Still, now I know and so do you. The greatest pirate who ever lived was Shi Xianggu.

Picture of the Day: Arbroath Abbey Gate Jan. 22nd, 2010 @ 04:01 pm
So, time to start working on going through pictures and displaying some.

Today's photo: the gateway into Arbroath Abbey. Now in ruins, Arbroath Abbey was founded in the twelfth century by William the Lion, consecrated in memory of the English saint Thomas Becket, and fell into ruins after the sixteenth century. The buildings were raided for stone for the building of the town.

The Abbey was the site of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, and was where the Stone of Destiny turned up in 1951 after it was stolen from Westminster Abbey.

And on another topic completely Dec. 11th, 2009 @ 04:13 pm
So, recently I read about two people.

The first is Mary Kingsley, author of Travels in West Africa. Mary Kingsley is remarkable among European explorers in that she believed, and argued passionately, that the idea that black people were inferior to white people was flat wrong.

She was not some radical progressive, by the way - she was entirely against the women's suffrage movement. She was extremely conservative. She just wasn't a racist, and was a distinct anti-colonialist.

Another person who hated colonialism was the utterly brilliant Alexander von Humboldt. von Humboldt's travels to colonial territory were in South America, where he covered amazing amounts of ground and did phenomenal research, more-or-less single-handedly inventing the concept of ecology - the idea of the interconnectedness of ecosystems.

During his lifetime he was hugely and tremendously famous. Sadly, later on everyone started paying too much attention to Darwin and not enough to von Humboldt.

Sadly doesn't really cover it enough, to be honest. Darwin's ideas (well, as much as they were his at all, but that's another matter) are all well and good, but have been used to justify some pretty horrible things, while not necessarily doing even a tenth as much good as it would have done the world at large, in a very literal sense, had people paid more attention to ecology and the environment from the 19th century onwards.

Alas, Darwinism can be used to justify colonial pillage of anyone you can outgun, while von Humboldt's notions require you to be respectful of nature and the environment and to be careful about messing with the food chain and the delicate balance of ecosystems, and that's much less fun.

Yesterday, Post 2 of 2: Photo Post of Doom Jul. 16th, 2009 @ 09:41 pm
Okay. Time to throw pictures at you. These are the highlights of my photos yesterday. Pictures link to their gallery pages which have shot information, and my general gallery has a fair (and ever-growing) number of images I've never posted to my journal.

Part 1: en route to the prison. )

Part 2: The Prison

Fremantle Prison was built by convincts in the mid-19th century. Despite being condemned in 1900 as "unfit for human habitation", a description it frankly deserved, it remained open and in use as the state's maximum-security prison until 1991. The main building is the largest intact convict-built structure in the world; though it narrowly avoided destruction at the time it was closed, it is now listed on state and national heritage registers.

It is amazingly intact. The gallows is still there, with a genuine (but unused) noose hanging from the notched crossbeam. (The notched jarrah crossbeam. For those of you not from around here, jarrah is a hardwood that takes its "hardwood" status seriously. If you try to hammer a nail into jarrah, the nail will break first. Early explorers who stopped in Western Australia and tried to cut down jarrah for timber and masts learned the hard way that this wasn't going to work - their axes were blunted, and the trees were unaffected.

Despite this, the crossbeam from which the noose depends is notched where executions took place.

In slightly less grisly fields of fascinating sites, some of the cells retain artwork on the walls, put there by prisoners; some of the art is seriously beautiful. The "escape-proof" cell built to hold Moondyne Joe is still there - a small room with hardened, studded walls, a tiny, heavily-barred window, where he was kept with an iron collar around his neck, chained to the floor.

He escaped from that particular stint in prison, but not from the cell - he was put to heavy labour, breaking rocks. He let his rubble pile build up high enough to block the guard's sight of him, and broke a hole in the wall, whereupon he remained at large for two years until some amazingly bad luck got him caught again.

Pictures. )
And finally, we get to:

Part 3: The nominally ghost photographs.

Fremantle Prison is, allegedly, one of the most haunted buildings in existence. The torchlight tour is a mixture of ghost stories and the occasional scare, like when the guide has just finished explaining that the mesh overhead is suicide netting, installed in the 20s, to prevent prisoners jumping - or being thrown - from the upper floors.

At which point, far overhead, you hear a man scream, and then something the size and shape of a human body slams into the netting overhead.

It is, of course, a dummy, but many people scream.

Some of the ghost stories are chilling. A couple of them are just kind of sad. A couple are sort of unsurprising, like the tendency of doors to unlock themselves. Some of the guides have quit the night tours because of creepy experiences.

A place that was in active use as a prison for 140 years, a place of violence, where people were executed or just died, often brutally, violence and other bad things happened, and even children were imprisoned, and which looks like every hideous Dickensian nightmare you ever thought of - it's a place that's going to attract a lot of ghost stories.

It isn't a happy place. It's actually kind of horrifying, when you think of how *recently* it was in use - people tend to assume it's been nothing more than history for much longer than it has, because it seems unthinkable that in the modern era such a medieval-seeming place could actually be used to lock up actual human beings, but it's been in use in my lifetime. The first time I went there it had only been closed a couple of years.

So various mediums and so on have also visited the place, and all agree it's haunted, and people take various photos they think show ghosts (our guide has some, which we were encouraged to e-mail her about, and she'll send them to us), and so on, and many stories are told by people who've worked there.

And while I was there I took two photos which are the kind of things that show up on episodes of Supernatural and ghosthunter websites. (The guide was very interested in them - she's into ghosts, I think.)

You know you want to see them, obviously. )

Do I believe it's ghosts? I am putting it in the same category as I put all ghost-related things, which is: I Don't Know. On the one hand, a lot of ghost-related stuff is pure crackpottery and people seeing what they want to see. Virgin Mary In My Toast-type stuff.

On the other hand, not all of it is like that. Some of it is stories from what I can't help but call credible sources. Sometimes it's innocent comments or actions from small children who don't know what the adults are perceiving, or why it's significant.

A cousin of mine was the source of some of these, commenting blandly for some months on the actions of "the man in the dress", who no-one but him could see. The man in the dress would be around - watching, sitting in chairs, that kind of thing. Once my Nanna was brightly informed, after sitting down, that the man in the dress was already sitting there - but it was all right, my cousin assured her, he didn't mind. The adults around him were slightly weirded out, but concluded that my cousin had a really odd imaginary friend.

Some time later, Nanna and a couple of her siblings, I think it was, were looking through photo albums. My cousin was on someone's lap, watching them do this, until suddenly he pointed at a picture and exclaimed that that was the man in the dress!

Or, as was worked out after careful questioning, an uncle in his often-worn dressing gown, the one he died in. Who my cousin had never met, or seen pictures of before that moment.

There are more things in heaven and earth, and all that. I don't know if ghosts are real. I cannot categorically say that they are not, because there is too much I can't quite explain away, but I can't say with certainty that they are, so. Most of the time, I'm not really concerned.

I ain't scared of no ghosts.

Hence, I present the photos with as much relevant information as I can think of. Be as skeptical or as convinced as you choose.

And if you are in Perth, take the torchlight tour at the prison, it's really interesting.

Current Music: the boys playing Fallout 3
Current Location: Destiny; couch

Good people do bad things: demonising Them is not the answer May. 21st, 2009 @ 08:20 pm
So here's a thing I periodically tell people:

Once upon a time, a boy was born in Austria, in a town called Altmuenster. His father was a night-watchman. The boy didn't like his father, but that wasn't his whole world, and in any case his father died when he was eight; the boy played the zither, and gave zither lessons, and as a teenager became an apprentice weaver. He was a master weaver by the age of 23, but he feared this wasn't the best career for him, for his health, for his future.

So, he joined the police force, because he was a very moral boy, who had written very good essays about morality in school. He liked the cleanliness and security the Austrian police uniform offered, he later said. His name, by the way, was Franz.

Seven years later, in 1938, the Anschluss happened, and Germany and Austria were united. Things got difficult for a lot of people - the new government was suspicious and authoritarian, and many people were arrested or otherwise removed from the police force. Franz got promoted rapidly. He was married by now, with young children, and he couldn't possibly let himself be arrested, made to disappear, leaving his wife and children destitute - or maybe even arrested with him. So as time went on, he did some things he didn't like very much, like sign documents disavowing any affiliation with the Catholic Church.

After all, it's not such a big thing, is it? And if he didn't... well. That would be suicide. Not just for himself - he might as well kill his own children himself, because it would be a cleaner death. Some very nasty men, called the Gestapo, would take his wife and children too, and they might get very badly hurt. So badly hurt his little children, who he loved more than anything, would die screaming if he said no to what they asked.

In 1940, a very important man called Heinrich Himmler gave an order to put Franz in charge of something called the T-4 Euthenasia Program.

Now, Aktion T4, as it was called, was killing people. Franz knew that. But you see, it still wasn't such a very big thing - the people were examined very carefully by doctors, and the only people killed were incurably, deathly ill, or insane, and suffering - they were mercy killings. It was practically a kindness, better for everyone. And still, if he said no, terrible things would happen to his children, so obviously it would be silly to refuse - after all, it was watched over by doctors, and these people were suffering terribly, and if he didn't do it, someone else would, and they might do it badly and things would get worse.

But as it turned out, things weren't quite happening the way they were supposed to happen. Some of the doctors turned out not to be examining people very closely at all. And they started including children. And some of the conditions that got people killed weren't really bad at all, like, for example, "being half-Jewish".

It had all crept up on him so suddenly, and this was what Mister Hitler, who was in charge now, had said should happen, and everyone was agreed that Mister Hitler was in charge, and everyone said how wonderful Mister Hitler was, so what if Franz was wrong, and these people really were sick? It wouldn't be fair to risk his children's lives if he was wrong anyway, would it?

As it turned out, he didn't have to worry about that any more, because Aktion T4 was winding down, and Franz was sent away to a new place. It was a supply camp for the Army, called Sobibor, and he had a very important job there. He was in charge, and he even had his wife and little children nearby, where he could see them, and where the Gestapo knew exactly where they were, which didn't have to be a problem - so long as Franz did everything he was told, his wife and children would be safe.

If he didn't...

Anyway, one day he found a gas chamber hidden in the woods. And his boss, Mister Globocnik, told him that if the Jews who were there to work for them didn't work hard enough, he should kill them off and Globocnik would send him new ones. Franz's wife heard some rumours about what was happening, and asked him questions. Franz told her: "You know this is a service matter and I can’t discuss it. All I can tell you, and you must believe me: whatever is wrong—I have nothing to do with it."

While he was in charge of Sobibor, about 100,000 Jews are thought to have died there.

Not long after that, he was sent to a new place again. This place was called Treblinka. Franz didn't have any doubts any more about what was happening, because it was all around him - he got used to it. He started thinking of the Jewish prisoners as cargo, alive or dead - there were so many of them, but they didn't stay, they just got processed through. It was like a factory, but all it produced was smoke from burning bodies.

He later admitted to the deaths of 900,000 people at Treblinka.

But he didn't admit to feeling guilty about it. He was doing his duty, these were his orders.

Of course, he was also drunk pretty much all the time, at Treblinka. He hadn't been a drinking man before, at all, but now he drank heavily and constantly. It's possible he didn't like himself very much for some reason.

After the war ended, he ran away. Some people from the Vatican helped him get away. Franz moved to Syria, then Brazil, and got a job at a Volkswagen factory under his own name.

An arrest warrant was issued for him in 1961. Franz Stangl was arrested in 1967, and convicted of the killings of 900,000 people. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but died less than a year later.

In 1970, Gitta Sereny interviewed him extensively. In 1974 her book, Into That Darkness, was published, and I wish more people would read it. She traces - with more depth and detail than I have, by far - the gradual process by which Stangl became a wholly amoral being, capable of doing things that he himself would have found unthinkable a decade earlier. Though she wants to be critical, she acknowledges that it is difficult to decide for someone else the point at which they should have sacrificed their own lives, and the lives of their families, for a principle. Knowing, too, that such a sacrifice won't prevent anything, not really, not on its own.

This was the evil of Hitler, and Himmler, and Goebbels - not that they were evil men, though they were, but that by their work they could make other men do evil too.

It's why it's dangerous to think that evil acts only can be done by Evil People. The Ku Klux Klan are evil people, the Nazis were evil people - but I'm not an evil person, my friends and neighbours aren't evil people, so the things we do certainly can't be part of something that's hurting people really a lot. That would make us evil people, which we're totally not, so what we're doing can't be that bad.

Except when it is. Except when the oh-so-sweet Ingalls family are stealing land, killing the people it should belong to, causing great harm. Except when the well-meaning missionaries are wiping out a culture, a language, destroying families. Except when a quarter of a million East Timorese people are dying because intervening against the Indonesian occupation is too hard. Except when we're letting it slide when the government is leaving people locked in tiny cages at Guantanemo Bay, when those people are getting tortured, because we want to feel safe no matter how much our illusion of safety comes at the price of other people's blood and pain. Except when the government is locking families in a "detention centre" that's really a prison, if prisons were allowed to be that terrible, for years and years and years, until they riot and sew their mouths shut and scream in their powerless anger, because we don't want to have to make them deal with all those refugees. Except, except, except.

We have met the enemy. They are Us.

We can choose where we stand. We can choose where we fight. But if we don't remember that the choice is always there, that good people do bad things, then we won't remember that sometimes, we can do harm by default.

Nobody who's going to read this has overseen the deaths of a million human beings. Has stood amid pits of human corpses and thought of them as trash that needs to be disposed of. Nobody has fallen as far as Franz Stangl fell.

But if you think you couldn't fall that far, you're kidding yourself. It could happen - the little compromises, the rationalisations, the tiny steps that are never worth the major sacrifice - that could be you, unless you remember to think.

And that good people do bad things.

Baseball to historical atrocities in about one line: I 0wnX0r ur h1story May. 20th, 2009 @ 08:14 am
I'm watching baseball again. This time: Detroit Tigers vs Texas Rangers.

I want Detroit to win.

Why? Because the name "Texas Rangers" offends me, pretty much. Even though I have a friend in Texas (who was deeply offended last time I mentioned my dislike of the very concept of "Texas Rangers"), and I'm not sure offhand that I know anyone from Michigan at all. I studied some US history - the Texas Rangers perpetrated some of the worst atrocities I've ever even heard of. (And bear in mind that my fields of historical examination have included Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and medieval Europe. I know from atrocities.)

No, I won't go into details. If you don't know, you don't want to.

History is not a nice discipline. It's interesting, and sometimes heartwarming, but history features some of the most vicious, ugly, nasty events you can imagine. History is a field that gets you to a point where you see some of the things that, in fiction, are meant to be extreme - depictions of brutality, of small and large-scale atrocities, and so on - and you think: call that a war crime? That's weak!

The reason I don't like that kind of thing, in the fiction that I read, is that I've read the same and worse done to real people. Once, studying Soviet history, I was reading accounts of events that happened in 1931-32, and realised that I had to take a break - because if I didn't, I was going to throw up. (I was already crying.) I stopped, went to the campus science fiction club's room, where there were people, some of them my friends. When people asked what was wrong, I told them I was reading truly horrifying history, and I'd come to be distracted from that, carry on.

To my eternal gratitude, people resumed their conversations, while one friend gave me a hug, and eventually the nausea faded and the tears gave way to laughter.

The Texas Rangers did things worse than what caused that.

And so: hate. Go Detroit.

Mammothfail: An explanation for the hard-of-thinking May. 16th, 2009 @ 11:50 am
I'm going to try to express this with as much clarity as possible, and to break it down as atomically as I can, because this was either inadequate, or people aren't reading it, or any of the other posts I and a zillion other people have been making about this stuff.

Let's see what's cropping up around the net.
[ profile] peake: And in fact, as I understand it, Wrede did not 'erase' the Native Americans from her book, she just imagined a world in which their forebears did not cross the land bridge from Siberia, a perfectly legitimate invention since that crossing is one of the great might-have-beens of history
Your understanding, it isn't quite right.

This was, indeed, the justification Wrede employed.
Wrede: The current plan is to have the primary difference before 1492 be that the various pre-historic attempts to colonize the Americas were unsuccessful; thus, no Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Mississippi Valley civilization, or Native Americans of any sort.... The absence of an indiginous population in the Americas is obviously going to have a significant impact on the way things develop during the exploration and colonization period, and I'm still feeling my way through how I'm going to finagle that to get to where I want. '

Which is, basically:  A North America in which the threat of Indians was
replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna...
You'll note that she perceives Indians as a "threat"... but okay, that could be argued as being just a slight miswording, right? So as far as we've established, she is, in fact, looking at a vaguely legitimate alt-history setup. However, this quickly becomes extremely problematic:
Wrede: The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel.
As I've discussed before, this is unsupportable as alt-history now - it's just bad history. It does not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. So you can't legitimise Wrede's book as an alt-history explanation. To be acceptable on that basis, it would have to have at least some effort to recognise the historical impact of this kind of change, which it doesn't. The closest Wrede gets to acknowledgement of that is this:
Wrede: ...since there won't be any Native Americans to have already done a certain amount of prepping land for human occupation, nor to be exploited later.
If you cannot see the flaw in viewing the net effect of thousands of years of inhabiting the land, modifying the environment, and cultivating crops by the indigenous population as "prepping the land for human occupation", there is a serious problem, but I'll try to explain it anyway:

1) Native Americans are, in fact, humans. Therefore they weren't "prepping the land for human occupation", they were improving the conditions of the human occupation already underway.

2) Viewing it as background preparation for the arrival of humans dehumanises the population there, and reinforces the "terra nullius" view that renders acceptable the invasion and occupation of inhabited land, with the attendant attempted genocide upon the people who were already there.

3) By viewing the Indians as a "problem" to be "eliminated" so that she gets to "play with cool megafauna", she is buying into a lot of very nasty assumptions about whether the native populations had a right to exist - or at least, to continue existing once the white people had shown up and made use of what they had done up until that point.

(Anyone else: Feel free to expand upon this in comments, I find it difficult to explain things which, to me, are intuitively obvious.)

If you still think this is a "legitimate" alt-history, please read the post I linked above, wherein I explain in depth why it is historically unsupportable.

As I have said before: I'm not saying it's impossible to write speculative fantasy on these premises - what I'm saying is that you can't do it as background. If you write a people out of existence as background, rather than as the setup for an exploration of how the world is different without their influence, then you're almost guaranteed to be doing it for reasons that are entirely offensive.

Meanwhile, [ profile] kerravongenius says:
However, the general tone remains that it is racist and evil and mean of Patricia C. Wrede to write about an America with no Native Americans but it is fine and good and reasonable to write an America with no European settlers.

Why cannot our dear raceflailers understand that if someone's ethnicity is the deciding factor in how they may be treated, that is racist?

Personally, I think it is the vilest possible insult to suggest that Native Americans cannot grasp the concept of fiction. Don't the raceflailers know that there are Native American authors WRITING fiction?

Raceflailers, accept it, you're all patronising bigots, insulting the very people you pretend to defend.

And I regret that I'm writing this sitting on my bed with my laptop on a chair next to it, because I have no desk to slam my head into. *headpillow*

No-one is suggesting that anyone - Native American or otherwise - can't tell the difference between fact and fiction. What we are saying is that the inherent assumptions behind The Thirteenth Child are extremely problematic and predicated on some very skeevy race issues, that the world-building is shoddy and implicitly dismissive of all contributions by natives of the Americas to world and local history, and that these things, in fiction, do in fact need to be challenged, because ideas are meaningful, and words matter.

Are we clear now?
Tags: ,

Two noughts add up to a nought... May. 14th, 2009 @ 01:08 pm
Huh. Based on this sample alone, I would have voted for this guy: Humphrey-Muskie, 1968. Humphrey came into the race late, having won no primaries, and won the candidacy at a disordered Democratic convention following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Transcript (by me):
Voice of young man in audience: Mr Vice-President, how do you expect to gain the respect of the American people in the event you're elected?

Then-Vice-President Hubert Humphrey: "Well, I think, by my record of public service... When a man says that he thinks that the most important thing is to double the rate of convictions, that he doesn't believe in and he condemns the Vice-President, myself, for wanting to double the war on poverty - I think that man has lost his sense of values. You're not going to make this a better America just because you build more jails. What this country needs are more decent neighbourhoods. More educated people. Better homes. Uh, if we need more jails we can build them but that ought not to be the highest objective of the, a Presidency of the United States. I do not believe that repression, alone, builds a better society. Now if Mr Nixon can close his eyes to that, then he doesn't have enough vision to be President of this country. And that's why I've said what I've said.


Voiceover: Humphrey, Muskie. There is no alternative.
If only at some point in the last forty years, or the last four hundred, the idea that repression alone doesn't build a better society, had really caught on.

I mention the centuries with a reason, because the history I'm studying right now includes the era when the modern police force was invented, and almost immediately turned into an instrument of social control, to keep the lower classes in their place. And, too, the era in which the notion of criminal justice went from deliberate savagery (the idea being that, though many crimes were left unpunished, those who were punished should be punished harshly and very much in public, to serve as an example to others), to the form we follow now - the surety, not the severity, of prosecution. Neither seems to work all that well.

Though the Bloody Code was cheaper, because imprisonment just wasn't how it was done. You were flogged, you were pilloried, you were executed, you were publically humiliated - but you weren't locked up. And they were making no pretense of trying to prosecute every crime. And charging someone with a crime could be expensive to the plaintiff, and in any case, people wouldn't prosecute if they didn't think the criminal who had wronged them would be deserving of the punishment they would receive.

Of course, sometimes this became "community justice" anyway. One man who wrote against the King was pilloried, and pelted with flowers instead of rotten produce or stones by an approving populace. Just about anyone who was convicted of deviant sexual crimes (either interfering with children, or, sadly, homosexuality) had a near-certainty of being stoned to death in their time in the pillory.

An interesting digression on this, actually, is the death sentence: Many crimes were capital crimes, at the time, but only a minority of those convicted of a capital crime were generally executed. Why this was is a matter of some historical debate (isn't everything?), but (my view, fairly well supported by evidence and historiography) was that the following things were major factors in this:

1) Past a certain point, too many executions would shift public opinion from "that bastard deserves to hang for what he done!" to "just about every day someone else swings at Tyburn - do they all deserve it? What if it's me or someone I love next?" Balancing public opinion on this stuff was quite important.

2) By granting clemency and reducing death sentences to transportation, the judges (who were of and represented the upper classes) could seem merciful and kind - despite the fact that the sentence they were giving was to send people, chained in ships which could be more-or-less just like the slave ships (including the women, children, and high death rates), to servitude in distant, harsh conditions, frequently for very minor crimes. In doing so, they reinforced a paternalistic class-power structure to their own benefit.

3) While, at the same time, more-or-less retaining the legal right to kill off anyone who was too much trouble. Which they did. At certain points in this period, habeas corpus was suspended. (This is never, ever a good thing.) There was, in place, a fairly thorough system of oppression.

I think one of the most interesting things about English history is the frequency with which there weren't revolutions. Negotiating the path from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy by a process of gradual adaptation, overall, is kind of impressive. Especially when you factor in religious upheaval and the other countries of the British Isles.

(Of course, reading the history of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries kind of makes you hate the English a lot, but I'm a sensitive woman of the 21st century and have only occasionally mocked my English classmate for her nationality - which, since she gives as good as she gets, including to the Glaswegian lecturer, is All Good Fun.)

It's that interesting thing about context, and power relations. It's easy to make light of casual racism when it's taking place in another country altogether, where participants are in fact on equal terms now - and when each target is represented equally as well. My lecturer can make snarky jokes about the Scots because he is Scottish; I can make snarky jokes about the English-in-history because the English were the dominant power group, I'm part-English, and so on. Whereas no-one has made a single Irish joke, because in the period we're dealing with, the Irish were the victims of some serious, comprehensive wrongness that just doesn't allow for humour.

It reminds me of a section from Mock the Week's first episode. Relevant: Dara, the host is Irish. John is English. The show is English.
Dara O'Briain, on an EU referendum: There is photographic evidence, of course, that vote-rigging took place in the referendum in France. [A picture comes up on screen of two women with their arms raised, revealing hairless armpits.] With armpits like these, there's no way these two are French.

Audience laughter.

John Oliver: Is that not - I'll go out on a limb here - a little bit racist?

Dara: It's a tiny bit racist, but not as much as the next one is racist.

John, laughing: Oh, okay, I'll look forward to that.

Dara: The next one is actually painfully, hideously racist on many many levels. It hits them repeatedly with a shovel and a pike at the same time, the next line. Do you want to hear it?

John: I love casual national hate. Come on.

Dara: It's fantastic. And it's not even my national hate. I quite like the French! The Irish get on very well with the French! It's your national hate. Anyway, I'm here, I'll play your game. All right! I'm willing to try and mix. Okay! A recent survey revealed that all of Europe sees the French as rude, smelly, and obsessed with sex and food. One Frenchman replied: "Piss off! I'm busy eating garlic off my girlfriend's nipples."

Audience laughter and applause.

John: No!

Audience response dies down.

John, pointing at the audience: Shame on you!
On the bright side, it's been years since any of these countries went to war with each other, when it used to be a near-constant; frankly I'll take making catty jokes about other European Union countries while still actually maintaining the EU as greatly preferable. (Besides, even if the racist jokes aren't funny, the snark about the racism itself often is. For instance, in this section, the jokes Dara is reading off the autocue aren't funny, but John Oliver's reactions are.) But that's the thing - the history behind this hate is of war between approximate equals, not one of oppression of one group over another.

It's interesting to look at the way this more-or-less represents progress: First violent, bloody warfare, for centuries on end, culminating in two World Wars that touched every continent except Antarctica; then, peace, uneasy at first, then more calmly, but tinged with vicious national stereotyping and hatefulness that gradually becomes jokes almost nobody really takes that seriously - then jokes that also get called out as racist. I wonder if this evolution will continue till the jokes become entirely harmless, the kind that acknowledge difference without implying either side is superior. That would be good.

But even if that takes centuries - and it might, because the grievances and hatreds have had centuries to build - I can live with that, because European countries only tend to invade each other by accident these days.

Heh, I'd forgotten that the next section of this episode of Mock the Week includes the serious discussion of who would win in a fight between an owl and a tiger. The argument: the owl would win. Every time. John Oliver explains to Linda Smith how the owl would adopt Ali's rope-a-dope strategy, letting the tiger swing itself out then flying down to peck it, while Dara simulates the fight with his hands. It is hilarious.

... No, I don't quite understand how I get from one point to another either.

Current Music: Moldovia - National Anthem

And lo, the Essay Spam begins: Part one, Language May. 13th, 2009 @ 12:27 pm
I will, for the sake of the sanity of my readers, make the effort to edit this post, rather than adding new ones, however.

Usual practice: Notes are public, actual proper essay content is locked until after the essay is handed in. If people are interested, they can read the essay itself when it's complete (probably I'll just throw a PDF up). I'm pretty sure that I've granted access to everyone who's subscribed to me, now. Locked content tends to be either Very Personal stuff (although, since I've made a medium-grade effort to keep the hateful trolls who've made me reluctant to post in my own livejournal from knowing this one is here, middling-personal stuff will probably be reasonably open), fiction works in progress, and chunks of essays and the like; if you'd rather be dropped from access for easier filtering of my posts, let me know.

Anyway, essay. )

Current Music: Cold Fairyland - A-jia-li-yalai
Current Mood: working

Mammothfail: Am I the only one who thinks that They are really trying to defend bad writing? May. 13th, 2009 @ 09:13 am
Okay, here's the thing: I was going to take a break from posting about this RaceFail stuff, because I've got four assignments due in the next week and I've been in a bad way for pain the last few days and I'm running out of spoons... and besides, as someone who's a) only peripherally involved in fandom right now and b) certified white (no, really. By a government), who says I'm someone who even should be making daily arguments about race issues in fandom?

The thing is, though, not saying what I think about stuff also costs me spoons. Spoons that, right now, I can't afford, because an out of spoons error quite literally could kill me. So for the sake, if nothing else, of my brother-out-law, who's having to deal with me trying to deal with everything, I'm not going to shut up.

I keep seeing this same whine pop up, in a couple of different forms.

If I try to write PoC but I do it wrong, I'll get attacked. I guess I just WON'T EVEN TRY.

So you're saying that you can't write an alt-history that removes a race, or any alt-history at all if you get right down to it. Because you'll get attacked. These expectations are so unfair.


*takes a deep breath*

See... here's the thing.

You are allowed to write characters of all races and ethnicities. You are. What will not pass unchallenged is writing them as stereotypes, or as nothing more than props for the betterment of white characters. No-one's stopping you doing that either, technically, people will just point it out as offensive, because it is.

It's also bad and lazy writing, anyway, so why would you want to be able to do that? Be grateful for critical readers - they'll make you a better writer if you let them.

This complaint is seriously akin to: "Man, when I go into shops, they don't let me steal what I want and piss on the displays. I GUESS I JUST WON'T GO SHOPPING THEN."

You are allowed to write alternate histories on any premise you choose. However, you have to think about it.

The problem with The Thirteenth Child is not, inherently, the unpopulated Americas. It is entirely possible to write a genuinely good alt-history on those terms.

The problem with The Thirteenth Child is that:

i) The author removed all native populations from the Americas, and then proceeded on the assumption that this would make no substantial changes to history. That the USA would be about the same. That is just bad history, and is therefore fundamentally a bad alt-history novel. You engage with history, you think about it, or... else. Seriously. We history types are slow to rouse, and not so quick and worldly... but we will fuck you up. Because we are persistent. We are the kind of people who will chase ideas through microfilm and archives, breathing dust for days on end, and we live to argue.

ii) The author explicitly did this because it "eliminated the problem" - HER WORDS - of having to choose between two disliked stereotypes of the Indians. "Eliminating the problem" is, historically, also code for attempted genocide. A genocide of which the author herself is essentially a beneficiary.

I am honestly bemused that someone could write that down and not realise what they're doing. That it didn't seem to occur to her that "writing the Indians as people instead of stereotypes" was an option. That she didn't see that the implication of subtracting the natives but leaving the development of the United States more-or-less the same is that she thinks that the contribution of the natives (and of slavery, which she also skipped over for her own ease) is negligible.

That's not all of what's going on, of course, but my point is: Writing an alternate history in which the Americas had no indigenous population is a valid choice. But you would have to recognise the vast changes that would wreak in world history. You just can't treat it as a minor choice.

As I said before:

I'm not saying it's impossible to write speculative fantasy on these premises - what I'm saying is that you can't do it as background. If you write a people out of existence as background, rather than as the setup for an exploration of how the world is different without their influence, then you're almost guaranteed to be doing it for reasons that are entirely offensive.

Apologies for the less-lucid quality of this post - ultimately, I'm really frustrated with these lines of argument, and it's harder for me to argue things that seem like they should be intuitively obvious. A part of me just wants to know why the hell do people want to be able to get away with bad, lazy writing? WRITE BETTER AND YOU DON'T HAVE THIS PROBLEM.

So, in essence:
Dear people who think the expectations of PoC-and-allies fandom regarding non-white characters/races are unfair,

It's fine. Lern2play.



Current Mood: tired
Current Music: Baseball: Detroit vs Minnesota

Back to Patricia Wrede and the Thirteenth Child: You Haven't Read This Post! May. 12th, 2009 @ 10:26 am
Discussions following on from these posts have been interesting. In some cases, educational. A lot of it is really beside the point of what actually matters about the problems revealed regarding Wrede and Bujold, but that's also why I'm writing these. Derailment is endemic to these discussions - people try to redefine the terms of the discussion so the important points don't have to be answered, because people are talking about something else instead.

My answer to so what do we do about it, which I can't guarantee will work but it's worth a try, is this: writing posts which address the issues people are bringing up, in detail. Not necessarily 100% correctly. [ profile] antarticlust brings up interesting points on megafauna extinction here, that shows I'm less right than I thought I was.

However, as antarcticlust points out, that doesn't mean the premise of The Thirteenth Child is not obscene.

On more than one occasion, already, I've been able to reply to attempts at derailment with a link to a post I've already made. This, for me, is handy. "This has already been covered. *link*" and I'm done. (I encourage others to do this, with my posts or those made by others: no need to engage with derailments over and over again. Toss them a link where it's covered, it's more than they deserve.)

But new derailments keep cropping up, so... my work is not yet completed. I'm waiting for my ADHD meds to kick in before I really get into it, because the alternative is made of fail.

... speaking of derailing comments, while I'm writing this (am currently reviewing stuff I want to cover, etc) on my TV an American baseball game is playing. It was what was on when I turned it on. Chicago Sox (I thought they were called the White Sox, but the dude whose socks were visible, they were BLACK) versus Cleveland Indians. I'm trying to learn more about baseball but every time I glance up I see their hats and seriously what the hell how are they allowed to have that logo. And they're playing at "Progressive Field". The irony, it burns.

Anyway, back to Wredefail 13: The 09th Race. Or, you know, however to identify this particular discussion without slamming one's head into a wall to dull the pain.

First: According to Lois Bujold, only since the Internet have non-white fans of genre fiction existed. I am not a non-white fan of genre fiction, so this isn't my territory to argue: to pick one link on this out of many, the wild unicorns are doing a herd check here.

Second. The argument that, so far, will not die: but you haven't read the book! So you can't judge it.

This? This is my territory. (Not just mine. But I have a share in it.)

See, here's the thing.

We're not really talking about the details of The Thirteenth Child. The plot, the characters - they're irrelevant to this discussion. Inasmuch as the subject is still The Thirteenth Child (as it has expanded somewhat, to include things like the existence of non-white genre fans) it's about the underlying premises and assumptions, and for that, you don't need to read the book. The points under discussion are not in question. It's not that we're all jumping in on the basis of hostile reviews - the positive reviews agree about these points. And in any case, you can get all you need from the author's description of the premise and her motivation for it.

Blatantly stealing from a comment I made elsewhere:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel. (emphasis added)

If - and I would argue that this is the case - the major problem is that Wrede felt:

a) writing an America "without Indians" was just the easiest way to go, rather than, say, writing them as a real, non-caricatured people (which makes her intellectually lazy)

b) that the extinction of the megafauna is entirely due to the native American population, and this not-actually-supported-by-evidence view was totally unproblematic

c) the possibility that real people would be upset to find their own history wiped away was unimportant

d) that doing this was "eliminating the problem", and it was totally okay to say that when there is a strong history of attempted genocide as a means of "eliminating the problem" when the "problem" was defined as "the existence of Native Americans"


e) that doing this would not be "wildly divergent" history, thereby displaying the assumption that the Native American contribution to American history is trivial at best

then as a matter of fact, stipulating that these points are in fact contained within the book (which is uncontested by anyone who's read it, whether they're in favour or opposed - and many people have read it), further verification isn't really needed, because you can get it from Wrede's own statement.

Expecting people to read the book before they can have an opinion on it is unreasonable. People do not have infinite time, certainly not infinite leisure, and expecting people to read a book they have substantial, credible reason to think will be hurtful to them is unsupportable.

This discussion is not about whether The Thirteenth Child is worth reading. Not really. Everyone already has enough information to make that call, and that one is subjective. It's about why the things that are wrong here are wrong, so that perhaps this crap won't keep happening, and so that this kind of offensive, hurtful material isn't being left unchallenged.

What's the quotation I'm thinking of? Something about how the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

The Thirteenth Child has already failed, on ethical and moral grounds, on - by my subjective standards - literary grounds, and very much on historical grounds. However, in challenging that, the rest of us can try to contain that failure to just Wrede (and Bujold, sadly). The idiocy underlying this, the inconsiderate attitude towards real people, the unconscionable assumptions... Those don't get to stand.

It doesn't undo what Wrede did. She's wrong. She hurt people. Lois Bujold is hurting people. But they don't get a free pass on that.

Current Mood: falling in love with Bo Jackson
Current Music: 雅-miyavi- - 君に願いを
Tags: ,

Top of Page Powered by Dreamwidth Studios