Racefail and the SciFi Ghetto: Why It's Really All About High School

As you may or may not be aware, there is a maelstrom brewing under the surface of the internet regarding racism and sexism in the world of Science Fiction. Generally referred to as "RaceFail," the simplest way I can think of to describe it is as sort of a metaflamewar that's been bouncing around the blogosphere for a few years now. It's been going on so long and has involved so many different players that I don't think anyone involved in it really understands the whole thing. To this gigantic clusterfuck of fevered egos, I have decided to add my own small contribution, in part to try to at least sort of map the whole thing, and also to try to talk about what I see as the real underpinnings of the whole controversy and where it comes from. No, it's not Nick Mamatas's fault.

The latest battle in the war was apparently kicked off because Elizabeth Bear is not a very good writer. This latest is clearly a result of earlier race problems in the SF ghetto that at least a few commentators claim they can trace back to Usenet in the early nineties. Apparently once upon a time the SF ghettoites were even more goofy than they are now and some commentators claim to remember a time when they had to defend against such asinine positions as "women can't write science fiction."

Basically, my take on the situation is that Elizabeth Bear, a writer of limited talent, wrote an essay about how to write The Other. The Other in and of itself is a tough concept that I don't think most people involved in the conversation really understand. Its introduction into the critical mindset of the west is relatively recent, coming from Hegel by way Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex which applied it to the notion of woman inspired in part by a passage in Julien Bend's novel Uriel's Report where he described woman as Hegel's Other. The original idea which inspired the existentialist notion of Otherness was Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic, the mechanism by which Hegel understood humans to attain consciousness. The whole thing becomes convoluted in the noble but ultimately misguided attempts by the existentialists to use the notion of Other as a foundation for objectivity, and this then is further misappropriated by all manner of folks in talking about difference in terms of The Other, I think mostly because it sounds sort of poetical and intellectual and gives the false impression that the person using the term is well-read. Put very simply the Hegelian Other is any other self-conscious being the recognition of which constitutes a challenge to a naive subject who believes he has mastery over the world. The two subjects, the Self and the Other engage in a fight to the death in which one of the two will ultimately submit because its fear of death is greater than the other, this one becomes the Slave and the one that does not submit becomes its Master. This then proceeds through a very convoluted argument to state that the Master does not achieve true self-consciousness because it has yet to recognize the existence of other subjective beings. In short, we must all submit ourselves to The Other before we can become fully self aware. To further complicate matters, all of this is supposed to go on in our own minds. To which I must say, um what?

Hegel inspired all manner of divergent thinking with his idea, some of which was taken up by philosophers of race and sex in the latter half of the twentieth century. Taken from an individual to a social level, it is relatively easy how one wanting to criticize Masters in whatever form one is casting them might want to compare an oppressed group to the Other. I think Marx is the first to do this when he cast the Proletariat as the Other enslaved by the capitalist and land-owning Master self. Nietzsche inverted the whole thing, claiming that the ubermensch would recognize all of this as nonsense (and he was on to something there) and overcome it all by rejecting the slave morality of western culture and, thus liberated, rule supreme (that part is less cogent). The existentialists in France got hold of it by way of Marx and Nietzsche and combined it with the important but difficult to understand insights on being that they picked up from Heidegger, and, by the time Jean-Paul Sartre got through with it, The Other became an essential component to existentialist psychology which reveals to the self the self's own alienation as it discovers itself to be the Other for Other selves (this is what he means when he talks about "being-for-others"). This conflict then between self and other becomes rooted very strongly in existentialist and later more broadly continental understandings of social systems. Beauvoir applies this to sex/gender in her epoch making The Second Sex.

It bears mentioning here that it is difficult for English speakers to fully apprehend exactly what Beauvoir was on about in The Second Sex because the English translation is notoriously awful. Beauvoir herself felt that it needed a new translation, but one is as of yet forthcoming from Knopf, who own the English foreign publication rights. What is clear though is that this application of the concept of the Other to marginalized social groups was a watershed notion, and from there the idea truly began to have legs. Fritz Fanon applied it to the idea of race in his excellent but often grossly misunderstood Black Skin, White Masks where he examines the interaction between the master slave dialectic and the historical experience of Black slavery in Europe and the Americas. Fanon was at one point at least extremely fashionable among the American academic left. President Obama name checks him in Dreams From My Father as an influence in his intellectual development as a young man trying to come to terms with his mixed race heritage and virtually no introductory course in post-colonialism or African American Studies can get by without referencing his important work. What matters for this discussion, however, is the problem that Fanon, or more correctly Fanon's many readers, oversimplify the idea of Otherness to the point where at this late date, The Other is used mostly as shorthand for The Marginalized. I would tend to argue that this basic error can lead to only further marginalization as it denies at root the subjectivity and personhood of members of marginalized groups. And It is that problem that lies at the root of a lot of the problems going on in the Racefail flame war. But more on that in a bit.

In any case, Elizabeth Bear's essay was not well-received, primarily because as it turns out she's not in a particularly good position to be giving advice on the subject since she's written all manner of stereotypical and boneheaded stuff on issues of race, eg the bit of dialog excerpted from Shadow Unit linked above. So following her essay, lots of people started calling her on that, pointing out to her that she hadn't done such a good job of "writing the Other" as she claims. Which backlash was then was followed by a backlash against the backlash, which generated it's own backlash and on and on, until now it's a few months and hundreds of thousands of words later and all of this has apparently spilled off of Livejournal where it started and into the blogosphere in general. The long and the short of the story is that it has finally become apparent to the SF ghetto that much to their chagrin as a group that likes to think of itself as inclusive and open minded, they really aren't that inclusive and open minded at all.

To anyone who is paying attention, this should not come as a surprise. Science Fiction and Fantasy and its ghetto has always been the refuge of middle class white males who do not feel at ease with the dominant expectations of white middle class masculinity found in the dominant social mores of Western Culture. More importantly, much of the most influential work from the earlier days of what has come to be call Fandom is outright apalling in its depictions of the marginalized. There is an irony here. Fandom is a catch all social group fundamentally indentified by a shared fascination among its members with fictional depictions of the fantastic incorporating Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror literature; Superheroes; Japanese Anime and Manga; Roleplaying Games; Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror television and film; and lately, Video Games, Fan Fiction, Comics of all kinds, and all manner of Conventions or Cons where fans of all these things come together in mutual admiration societies to talk about their favorite things. The irony is that Fandom itself is a marginalized group. To get at why this is, it's necessary to take a step back and look at the psychological roots of the wish fulfillment that has always been part and parcel of Fandom, the group that I lovingly refer to as the SF Ghetto.

Let's begin with Horror. Horror fiction, interestingly enough, grew out of the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. The Romantics, at least in one mode, were an anti-rational reaction against the neo-classicism then prevalent in the Protestant enlightenment of western europe. Their poetry, for which they are most famous, championed the individual, best examplified by Byron and his Childe Harold, as both a subject for valorization and as a foundational element of their poetics. Poetry for the Romantics was to be written spontaneously, in the thick of the emotions and feelings of its author and should exalt the spirit rather than do as their classicist forebearers did and appeal to the intellect.

As a side note, it is an unfortunate aspect of education in America that this is where a lot of people think poetry stopped. Generally speaking, most High School poetry units run roughly from Coleridge to Dickinson with a gross over emphasis on the likes of Shelley, Keats, Byron, and their ilk, with a brush against modernism in Eliot and Frost that tends to over emphasize the personal expression mode of poetry. I blame this for the problem of all the crappy confessional poetry that the internet is swamped with today.

But more important, perhaps, to our discussion is the challenge to science that is found in Romanticism. In Beethoven and Chopin, there is a rejection of the formality and stoic adherence to (misapplied) Pythogorean harmony in classical music. In Byron and Coleridge, the rejection of the scientific Aristotelian heroism on the neo-classical greek model. And in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, there is a rejection of the prevailing enlightenment belief that science and reason will bring about a new utopian world. Thus is Horror born in a combination of folk tales of monsters and the idea of science gone wrong, and from this proceeded all that will follow.

Most important in the development of Horror for the SF Ghetto in the 20th century, however, is probably the strange case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Horror, unlike science fiction and fantasy, has a bit of a life of its own predating the pulp fiction empires of the twenties and thirties where the SF Ghetto was born. Frankenstein, after all, is both a classic of 19th Century literature and a touchstone for Feminist Critical Theory. Steven King, the most well known Horror writer ever, is hugely popular in the realm of mainstream commercial fiction. Some of the most popular and enduring films and television shows have been from the Horror genre, and ghost stories and folk tales about creepy monsters have never lost their grip on the wider popular imagination where Horror fiction was born. To put it simply, Horror had to be brought in to the SF Ghetto. Unlike Science Fiction, and to a certain extent Fantasy, it was not born there. And the person who brought horror in to the SF Ghetto by means of the pulp magazines was, more than anyone else, New England writer HP Lovecraft.

Lovecraft, for anyone who loves his writing, is, or perhaps should be, a troubling figure. An effete snob, he was anti-semitic, classist, racist, sexist, and homophobic to an extreme. While it's not difficult when casting about the history of literature and the arts to find talented artists who were personally repugnant, Lovecraft is unique in how his vile beliefs formed the foundation of his fiction. The French author Michel Houellebecq has gone into great detail analyzing this aspect of Lovecraft's misanthropy and how it informed his fiction in his book length essay HP Lovecraft: Against Life, Against the World and I recommend that book to anyone seeking to come to terms with the writer and the man. For my purposes, it is enough to say that the creeping unease with which Lovecraft populated his work is a direct result of the same feelings in himself towards Blacks, Jews, and women. More to the point, however, one has only to look at the essay written by an SF Ghetto Champion like Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the Del Rey Lovecraft collection The Dream Cycle of HP Lovecraft to find the general treatment of Lovecrafts politics in the Ghetto, where it is mentioned in an offhand way and dismissed as having no bearing on the appraisal of his work. In short, the dismissal of racism as unimportant in SF Ghetto Horror fiction has a long history.

The case against Fantasy is much less straightforward. Fantasy is a bit of a historical anomaly in that it does not really have the providence it claims for itself. Fantasy is also a much broader genre than either Horror or Science Fiction, and as such it is more difficult to pindown exactly how it found its way into the SF Ghetto. Again, it was a very popular genre in the pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s where I argue that the SF Ghetto was born, with writers like Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber setting the mold. What makes Fantasy strange though is that it, unlike other types of genre fiction, there is a division between the general mainstream acceptance of fantasy depending on whether it is written for children or for adults.

Fantasy has always been a staple of children's literature stretching back at least to the Mother Goose collections of nursery rhymes from the Georgian era. More importantly, Fantasy in children's literature--or "Young Adult" literature as it has been rebranded by the publishing industry--exists outside the SF ghetto. Children's fiction writers from Lewis Carroll to Susan Cooper to Lloyd Alexander have written complex fantasies for young readers and have been widely successful doing so. This breadth of fantasy among writers for young readers and the fact that this group of writers have largely operated independently of the SF ghetto has given birth to one the stranger facets of the present publishing field. Given the rampaging success of J.K. Rowling in writing YA Fantasy, there has been an attempt by members of the SF ghetto to lay claim to the YA genre's use of fantasy and as a result many adults within the SF ghetto have taken to reading fantasies for young readers in an attempt to pull the wider and more complex stories and ideas of children's literature into the more limited and generally more poorly constructed realms of adult fantasy. It remains to be seen exactly how this is all going to play out, but my guess is that it won't work. Children's literature is more open to fantasy largely because it is more socially acceptable for children to engage in the sort of imaginative play that goes on in a well constructed fantasy. Adults are expected to have a more developed palate and not engage in the sort of simple escapist fantasies present in much of fantasy literature that occurs within the SF ghetto. Which is an important distinction, because while it's not nearly as prevalent, there is a wide range of fantasy literature for adults that exists external to the SF ghetto. But more on that in a moment. What is important to note is that within the SF Ghetto fantasy, by and large, is so absolutely terrible. The readers within the SF Ghetto are more than content to read all manner of crap so long as the title is written in the correct font and the type of escapist fantasy contained within the covers is the right sort of plot. That plot, of course, is the Standard SF Story that was introduced into modern literature via two primary sources. The first and most important source is, of course, JRR Tolkien.

Tolkien is absolutely abysmal. His prose style is stilted and boring and his characters are wooden and possessed with a latent homoeroticism that is largely ignored by most readers. His stories, while probably the most unique element of his work, was largely borrowed from medieval romance literature and anglo saxon mythology as it is preserved in epic poetry like Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight. And all of it is highly reactionary and politically questionable in it's teutonic supremancy. It's worth noting that the questionable nature of this sort of literature is not something new. Don Quixote, after all, was written 400 some years ago as a satire of this exact same medievalism as it was present in the 16th and 17th centuries. There has been a current within western literature since at least the protestant reformation that exalted the past of europe, the feudal age prior to the magna carta, as some sort of lost golden age. In context of the rise of mercantilism and the growth of the middle class, it is understandable why that sort of nonsense would appeal to the literate landed aristocracy of europe who were nostalgic for the days when their ancestors had run rough shod all over the western world doing precisely however they pleased. This nostalgia, as it was carried forward through the Enlightenment, it became ever more anachronistic and out of touch with the emerging values of western literacy. What use is monarchy, chivalry, feudalism, and the fear of social outcasts ensconced in the romantic literature of the Renaissance like Le Morte d'Arthur in a world that is rapidly learning to be more civil in it's treatment of others as evidenced by the values of the American and French Revolutions.

Fantasy writing, then, has always had this reactionary bent, and this has carried forward into modern fantasy where medieval ideals of masculinity and the divine right of kings have become the core values of SF Ghetto fantasy. This is present in Tolkien, in Howard style Sword and Sorcery from the Weird Tales era, and it is present today in the other source of modern fantasy, the tolkien inspired Fantasy Roleplaying Game Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons, despite it's brief association with satanic heavy metal in the nineteen eighties, is about as uncool as social institutions gets. I know this for a fact because I myself have played Dungeons and Dragons, both as a teenager and during brief lapses of reason as an adult, and if I am completely honest I have to admit that I feel a certain amount of shame because of this. Which is not to say that such shame is necessarily a part of Roleplaying Games, as an activity it should be something that can be as interesting and fun as any other activity involved in fictional story telling. The fact that this particular urge for interactive storytelling has largely been supplanted by Video Games for me and for probably thousands of other one time D&D fans is telling. Because the real problem with Dungeons and Dragons is not the game itself, but the fact that over the last fifteen to twenty years, Dungeons and Dragons has become the sole property of the SF Ghetto. Which means that in order to play D&D one must descend into the ghetto, and that is where my shame is located.

And the reason for this is simple. Despite the move towards greater inclusiveness over the years, at root the basic principles of fantasy roleplaying is a middle class white male fantasy of control and conquest. The attraction is fundamentally the fact that the world of Dungeons and Dragons is set in undemocratic feudal societies ruled by absolute monarchs. The characters within these worlds live within them either in concert with or in opposition to specific kings, but never question the right of kings to rule. This fundamentally conservative notion is so archaic and out of touch with a modern mindset that it should be unsurprising that people who spend their time dreaming about such a world would have similarly pre-modern notions about race and gender. The fact that there are a lot of these people living in a capitalist society makes inevitable the sort of fiction that has come from Dungeons and Dragons culture. To that end there are the endless series of fantasy novels set in the trademarked and wholly owned campaign worlds of Dungeons and Dragons owner, first TSR and now Wizards of the Coast. Much of this fiction, as previously noted, has overtly engaged in the tropes institutionalized in Fantasy literature by Tolkien as it has been imitated repeatedly within the SF Ghetto. It is in this institutionalized form of fantasy as handled by largely incompetent writers that one can see the ridiculous attitudes about race and gender that are being played out in the Racefail debate.

Note, for example, the stock idea of fantasy races. Few fantasy novels, on the Tolkien/D&D model, don't have non-human races present. Some of these races are stock and straight from Tolkien even in D&D. These are the haughty elves, the gruff and grumpy dwarves, the subhuman and violent orcs, etc. Rare is the fantasy novel that steps beyond stereotypical portrayals of non-human races. The characters of these races almost always fit into the established genre conventions about them. They are used as shorthand for characterization by fantasy writers. Why bother to spend time developing an arrogant character, exploring why that character is the way he is, when it will be taken as read by the reader who just knows that's the way elves are after all? In those rare occuerences where a character does break with type, the Dark Elf Drizzt from R.A. Salvatore's novels set in the Forgotten Realms universe for example, they are portrayed not as an exploration of misunderstood types but rather freaks not in keeping with the monolithic understood one dimensionality of these fictional races. One wonders why a group like the SF Ghetto so content with this kind of stereotyping in fiction would have a problem with stereotyping in the real world. As it turns out as evidenced in the racefail debate, many writers don't have such problems, and even when they are vaguely aware that it is problematic, as is the case with Elizabeth Bear, their involvement in and overexposure to the tropes of the low grade of fantasy literature tolerated only within the SF Ghetto has rendered such writers incapable of a more nuanced and capable take on race. In the end, their attempts to break with the tradition are ultimately just the same old thing, and inevitably so given the underlying values of their audience and the subculture they have built out of their strange reactionary values.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. As mentioned previously, there is a wide range of fantasy writing for adults that has nothing to do with the SF Ghetto and that the SF Ghetto seems completely unaware of. Largely coming from the influences of Kafka and Borges on the one hand and the French Surrealists on the other, there is a current within literary fiction throughout most of the postmodern period from roughly the midfifties to the present where fantastical elements have been central to a great deal of literature produced outside the SF Ghetto. Whether it be the wild conspiracy theories in Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, the strangely unreal events of Delillos Mao II, the magical elements of Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Jose Saramago's Blindness, to more recent writing such as the African magic of the Allmuseri in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage or the weird mysticism of the elevator repairmen in Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, fantastical elements are all over literature outside the SF Ghetto. By my lights, it strikes me that the key difference is that such books are not the spiritual children of reactionary jeremiads about a noble feudal past that never existed that has descended from Tolkien and the Romantics of the 19th century into the SF Ghetto.

Which leaves only Science Fiction as the element within the SF Ghetto which might prevent a clean sweep of fundamentally wrongheaded ideals informing the fictions of the Ghetto. Here again there is the division between fictions within and without the ghetto tracing to the nineteenth century. But where there were always socialist writers like HG Wells and George Orwell who used science fiction as a way to promote progressive ideals, these were largely absent from the pulp fictions of the twenties and thirties which again formed the foundations of the SF Ghetto's approach to the genre. Within the Ghetto, far from the subtle humanist ideas of Orwell and Wells, writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, when they did approach issues of race and gender, which was often, it was handled in a ham handed and often ridiculous fashion that while ostensibly could be read as having their hearts in the right place, the treatment is so poorly done, and the politics of the issues are so confused that it is unsurprising that their literary heirs don't do much better. Add to this the further problem that as a result of Heinlein's overt libertarian boobery, as muddled and incoherent as it was, and the further influence of Ayn Rand among a large and influential fringe within the ghetto, there is a definite presence of extreme right wing politics within the SF Ghetto that, while notably challenged by a few contemporary writers like Iain M. Banks, persists and gives quarter to the stock straight white male belief in personal exceptionalism and egoist rugged individualism that is inherently anathema to the goal of improved race relations and challenges to widespread institutional racism as it persists in the culture of the SF Ghetto.

The status quo then is not a great place to be. Much of the foolishness that has been on display by the "racist" side in the Racefail debate is ensconced and institutionalized within the roots of what forms the culture of fandom, their most prized cultural artifacts preserve and enshrine awkward and ridiculous ideas about race and gender and tilt toward a right wing politics that is historically and politically opposed to active attempts to promote a more equitable society. To recognize that, however, is not to say that there are not some problems with the "anti-racist" side of the debate as well. The injection of leftist textual criticism into the SF Ghetto is a relatively recent development that probably doesn't stretch back much earlier than the 1980s and a postmodernist urge to break down genre. There have been interesting and fruitful results of that interaction. One might point to the ambitious but flawed work of Grant Morrison in comics, the recognition of Philip K. Dick as an important literary figure by many mainstream and academic critics, and the growth of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem style genre bending in recent years as positive developments outside the ghetto as a result of the intersection of genre and academic criticism. But in true SF Ghetto style, within the Ghetto itself, some of the more ugly and ridiculous elements of academic criticism have been ensconced in a way that doesn't work in the wider culture where more rational voices generally prevail.

Take for example a large feature of the current racefail debate. Much of it has centered around accusations of racism by one group toward the other, which then gets countered by the most ridiculous argument ever to come out of the academic discipline called Critical Race Studies. The argument, rests on a goofy definition of racism generally rendered as "Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power." What the people who hold to this idea believe is that Racism isn't really Racism unless the person being Racist is a member of a dominant social group with the power to oppress others. The fallout of this idea is that it is impossible by definition for persons of color to be racist because they do not possess such power. This argument, when it comes into play, is a sort of nuclear option in that it ends debate. A member of a dominant social group must in the face of it either accede that they have to sit down and shut up and accept without question what people of color have to say about race, or they must begin to argue against the definition that is being asserted at which point the debate is derailed completely into a mindless quibbling over semantics.

To put it bluntly, anyone who believes that there is something of substance in the "Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power" formula is a fucking idiot. The reasons for this are three fold.

1.) It renders invalid all manner of uses of the word racism which are perfectly sensible to speakers of English.

2.) It fails to comprehend that power is not just social in nature and depending on the circumstances a person of color may have more power than someone they hold racial prejudice against, in which case even by this definition they are racist and so the purpose of the definition, that is, making Racism co-extensive with institutional racism benefitting whites, fails.

3.) It excuses racial prejudice as not racist and because it shifts the focus of discussion from issues of personal belief to the exercise of social power generally ignores the fact that the problem of racism is not in fact institutional, but the basic fact that there are individuals who have problems with other individuals based solely on their skin color and then act to oppress those people through whatever mechanisms are available to them, which in turn causes the institutional problem that the argument takes to be basic.

I am fairly sympathetic to folks who make this mistake about what racism is. Most of them have generally made the mistake in order to counter accusations of so called "reverse racism" which in and of itself is a nonsensical claim. There is no such thing as reverse racism, there is just racism and it's opposition, and opposition to racism in the form of programs like affirmative action and challenging white privilege are not racist, they are anti-racist. But just because one's goals are noble, one does not get to get away with sloppy thinking, which is what this is. More problematically, sloppy thinking of this type, on the part of the good guys who are actually trying to get racism to be less of a problem in our culture, makes for an easy bogeyman for racists to attack and distracts the entire conversation away from real concerns to fake ones about what words mean.

Which is, really, what all of this comes down to. Frankly, I am skeptical that the SF Ghetto can be redeemed, and even if it can be, I'm not sure that it should be. As my discussion of the various subgenres of the SF Ghetto shows, everything of value within the SF Ghetto can be found in work outside the SF Ghetto. Moreover, the SF Ghetto itself merely plays into the desire by publishing companies to slice the market for readers into easily marketted to segments which is bad for literature overall. The insularity of the SF Ghetto and its creation of a safe space for social awkwardness and bad literature are not virtues, contrary to what its boosters claim when they champion how "tightknit" and "accepting" the Ghetto is.

Which brings me to the question of why the Ghetto exists at all. Clearly, there is a world elsewhere. Mainstream and Literary writers and creators like the same fantastical tropes that are supposed within the ghetto to be their exclusive territory. So why need there be a SF Ghetto at all? Like much of mass culture, I think it all comes back to high school. In high school culture there is an intense social pressure put on adolescents to define their identities through social affiliation. Even worse, the various possibilities offered to kids are rigidly stratified and tend to define us far more than they should well into adulthood. Everything you do in high school is largely defined which subculture you choose (or, as we'll see, is chosen for you), from the music you listen to and the clothes you wear to the classes you take and the future you plan for yourself. Historically, the subgroups are as they appear in S.E. Hinton's classic novel The Outsiders. In the outsiders as in life, everyone broadly speaking, is divided into Socials and Greasers. Generally speaking Socials or Socs are from wealthier families, like sports, are headed to college and middle class life, and broadly embody the prevailing values of the bourgeosie. Greasers in turn are outsiders, working class, less concerned with school, and generally embody the prevailing values of the proletariat. Of course, things are much more complicated than this in the real world. In contemporary highschool the Socs break down into jocks and preppies with some overlap, the Greasers have been replaced by punks and metalheads, and the Outsiders model leaves out the more segment found in the Breakfast Club model, of the geek/nerd, and the freaks. The SF Ghetto is born in this environment largely plucking its members from the geek group who, in recent years at least, have in an attempt to overcome their social marginalization adopted the outsider mentality of Hinton's Greasers in a vain attempt to try to be cool. This is what leads to all those guys with long hair and neckbears who listen to nu metal while wearing six hundred dollar leather overcoats and twenty dollar payless sneakers. It's not an accident that so many of those guys play dungeons and dragons and work in Information Technology. It is also no accident that they are part and parcel of the SF Ghetto.

Which is to say that in essence the SF Ghetto is the result of a semi-conscious attempt to create a culture where none exists. Dominant High School culture doesn't particularly value the things that members of the SF Ghetto are good at. Generally speaking High School culture values and rewards skill at social and athletic activities and devalues academic and creative aptitude. The cliques of high school are stratified in favor of the kids who like sports and care about school spirit and student governance etc, leaving the kids in the chess club, band, and art classes, as well as the kids who can't stand any and all of the above, largely by the wayside. The kids who can't stand any and all of the above are the traditional outsiders and the kids who like sports and run for class president or homecoming queen are the traditional insiders. Kids who don't fit into either group, and in particular the boys who fail at both insider and outsider standards of masculinity, are then left to their own devices, and the wish fulfillment fantasies and magical or scientifically advanced worlds which equate masculinity with the things these kids are good at have some appeal as a result. The SF Ghetto is created by those kids who never quite grew out of it after highschool. Is it any wonder then that so much of it is oriented at and dominated by adolescent straight white male power fantasies?

Note also that the one thing that is missing from the above analysis of high school culture is the minority experience. There's a reason for that, which is that high school is still a place that ensconces whiteness as the default position and our culture has yet to create a space within it for minorities. Looking to fiction, the only real model we have is of the courageous teacher going into the inner city in an attempt to "reach" disfunctional minority teenagers. With the notable exception of Stand and Deliver, in all cases these teachers are also white. It should be no surprise that a subculture formed by prevailing white male insecurities within the social structure of high school will then create room within it for people who themselves have no place within the prevailing white expecations about high school.

So what then is to be done? Well, given that I don't see much of value in the SF Ghetto to be saved, probably the best thing to be done would be to abandon it altogether. Some things are simply creations of a racist society that need to die, and the SF Ghetto may well be one of them. While it's not exactly the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps the best thing that people who care about the representations of people of color and women within genre fiction can do is to break with the existing social hierarchy in the SF Ghetto and strike out on their own. Stop going to the conventions and ren faires that institutionalize the inherently sexist and racist and right wing attitudes of the SF Ghetto and actively protest authors like Elizabeth Bear and their racist characters. Vote with their dollars to try to support writers working outside the ghetto who write the kind of fiction they like. Stop spending time and money and effort trying to change a system that is fundamentally broken and not doing anybody any favors and try to work to create something better. Arguing with the people who want to live in the SF Ghetto as it is is not going to go anywhere and just legitimizes the mistakes that have led to it existing in the first place.


SF Ghetto

Though there's a lot to dispute in this piece, I'm glad to hear someone speak out against the ghetto, part of the problem originating, I feel, in the belief that SF is a conversation - a members-only club - not a genre or set of genres. In a sense all literature is a conversation (with work that's gone before), so why try to define SF in this way? The roots of a ghetto mentality have an awful lot to do with the need for legitimacy.

One of the problems is that

One of the problems is that SF has been taken over by people who see the exclusiveness of the ghetto as a good thing on one hand and others who want to make s.f. all things to all people. SF was traditionally for an audience of technical workers and budding scientists (a friend in her 60s said that in her youth, all science graduate students read science fiction). That changed in the 60s with the New Wave which brought in some more literary readers and writers.

If the professions and trades that s.f. draws its readership from are diverse, then the field is likely to be diverse. If not, not. Access to technical and scientific educations is probably more critical to most disadvantaged people than access to s.f. fandom. MIT wasn't an option to women in the early 1960s.

i think we're largely in agreement

The important thing is to make a distinction between SF as genre and SF as community. SF as genre is no more or less problematic than any other genre with the possible exception of feminist and minority literature, which have a group of problems of their own. if SF is just genre then the exclusiveness of groups isn't at all connected with the work itself and the whole commercial structure is able to be jettisoned in favor of something more open and flexible and everyone benefits from that.

The best solution is to write

The best solution is to write whatever you feel passionate about, steer clear of people who want to hang out with you because they're sure you're a fan like them, and publish with people who will describe your books accurately on the cover. Let the chips fall where they will, otherwise. Try to write better next time as that's the only thing a writer can control.

Genre, per se, doesn't guarantee any form of excellence. Many graduate school faculties are full of bad literary writers. Many s.f or fantasy amateur and even pro magazines are equally as full of bad speculative fiction writers.

absolutely. my belief, as i

absolutely. my belief, as i think wetasphalt has stated a few times, is that genre is really little more than a marketting tool and is no guarantee of quality. We've been very critical of the garbage "workshop fiction" that comes out of MFA programs cranking out bad literary writers by the dozens.

Mr Q, very thought-provoking.

Mr Q,

very thought-provoking. Although I agree more than I disagree, I have to point out that you have not defined what the Ghetto is or what it does, other than it plays D & D. But D & D is a fantasy of teutonic supremacy, and always was, there's nothing science fictional about it.

Role-playing games have a social function which goes beyond the act of gaming itself - it behooves critical minds to consider what that function is, and why its popular.

That said, there is no reason to presume that any author should have to write a story with a liberal checklist in mind when considering the characters and what they believe or do - a creative person has to tell a story that's true for them and their experience, and not worry about whether or not it contains, for example, positive lesbian role models. Heinlein and Asimov are giants that you or I can't hold a candle to, and we can't look at their narratives with the ideals of 2009 and complain that they as writers were not up to snuff with our values of today.

For a long time it has been fantasy, not science fiction, that has been reluctant to put blacks, Jews and non-Aryan females on the covers of its products. Why is that - because such groups are not interested in stories like this. George Lucas meanwhile, has often been criticized for being too politically-correct by suggesting that aliens, working-class hooligans and people of all races and creeds can unite as equals and destroy the death star.

One more thing on Tolkein - its not homoeroticism but a notion of brotherhood that he writes of, which has been lost since the world blew up in 1914. Rational voices do Not generally prevail in the wider culture, and the racefail debate is a good example of this, which you have accurately concluded. Its true that science fiction has long been a domain of white, rational males but so has much of the western world. Your indictment casts too broad a net because how you like to work does not necessarily impart on what you like to read.

There are older articles

There are older articles where I've defined the SF Ghetto explicitly. But as far as I'm concerned it's more or less coextensive with fandom of which Roleplaying is just a subset.


"Heinlein and Asimov are giants that you or I can't hold a candle to"

That actually made me laugh out loud.

ok, the second half of my

ok, the second half of my sentence is closer to what I wanted to say there

congratulations, your dart landed.

If only i could hold a candle

If only i could hold a candle to Heinlein. Ideally, the part of him i'd like to hold it to would be the soles of his feet.

Um, most s.f. has been highly irrational

Anyone who wants a really thorough analysis of that statement should read Stanislaw Lem's critical essays. FTL travel, telepathy, aliens who are all alike, future dominated by humans, etc., etc. are all extensions of travelers' tales about exotic lands where the women had horizontal vaginas and some people had one huge foot. It's not that those aren't fun, but rational, no. They're travelers' tales extrapolated into space.

There is no western world in terms of material culture -- there's a Eurasian world. See Guns, Germs, and Steel or read some Joseph Needham. HTH.

In my reply I'm putting

In my reply I'm putting 'rationality' on a continuum in comparison to fantasy. From this point of view scifi as 'traveler's tales' have a moral equivalency to colonialism, which is a form of rationality often associated with white male oppression.

Lem is in his own league and is not a good example of what contemporary scifi sets out to do. I've read GG&S but Mr. Q is making a point about larger commercial culture wherein - I think - rational voices generally do not prevail, rational voices are not the same as 'rationality' - please see Michel Foucault II. My criticism was for the western world and not 'material culture' per se, but as of last October that may all be changing, who knows.

It's all fantasy, with more or less science as the excuse

You're leaving out some verbs and connection to the point that I don't know whether you're mocking the fantasy of white male rationalism or trying to claim it exists.

I thought i was following

I thought i was following your position, but now I'm not so sure. So because Stanislav Lem is brilliant that's not a standard that other SciFi should be held to? Why not? Why are traveller's tales morally equivalent to colonialism? Even Gulliver's Travels? Colonialism is a form of rationality?

What does Diamond have to do with anything I said about consumer culture? What does that have to do with rationality?

I may be a marxist, but I don't think there's anything I said here that's particularly an attack on material or commercial culture other than to say that, as usual, markets are bullshit and largely artificial. I don't think that materiality has much to do with it actually, although to a certain extent material culture is coextensive with the eurasian/western world. but I'm confused by all of that because really what's in question are how aesthetics and ethics intertwine and the problems of ration voices being heard in an irrational world. and what that has to do with rationality and Foucault?

I'm really very lost by this.

I was replying to the guy who claimed....

....that Western Eurasia was more rational than Eastern Eurasia.

Diamond's work (and well as other works more specifically on printing in China) makes it clear that we don't have Europe and Asia as culturally separate things (temporary fluctuations in power not being all that significant), but that we've got Eurasian culture. The Chinese aren't even as mystical as the Europeans, and rational Greek thought can be mapped to the intersection of Eastern, African, and Western gene flow.

We project what we fear in ourselves on the other, whether we're a Klansman who knows that maybe that Cherokee great grandmother wasn't quite Cherokee (at least some branches of the Klan accept partial native ancestory) or the American Christian fundamentalist projecting fascism on his Islamic equivalent. We call people whose literary tastes are more catholic than ours "mundanes."

that makes a lot of sense.

that makes a lot of sense. thanks.

I was replying to skypillar

The western part of the Eurasian continent isn't known for being consistently more rational than the Eastern part. SF is often mythos in science drag, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Fascinating argument

There's plenty of stuff to think about in this essay and plenty of flaws in it too. The flaws in your essay do NOT mean the thinking should be skipped over.

However, there is one flaw in it that you try desperately to gloss over and, in my opinion, detracts significantly:

The whiteness of the ghetto itself. While it's certainly true that the ghetto is populated with IT Geeks and is predominantly white, the demographic of IT Departments -- and, strangely linked, the Ghetto itself -- is changing. There are more writers of different ethnicities appearing all the time. Certain writers from Brazil are quite amazing. A couple of American minority authors are climbing the charts.

The ghetto needs this change, and it must change, and simply abandoning it is about the silliest suggestion I've ever heard -- it can't be abandoned for one major reason -- the market is there, and the people in the market will write the books, and the book publishers will publish them in order to make money. If everyone walked out tomorrow, it would be back by the end of the week.

The real reason the ghetto lags so sharply (and ironically!) behind other fiction in its progressiveness is that we have 1) many older writers and readers -- with typically older sensibilities and 2) many folks hang with gnarled claws onto the "classics" you mention and like to think of them as perfect when they are, to be frank, crap.

But what you say has some weight -- there is an insular, racially blind air about some SFF. It needs to radicalize and change much more rapidly.

But the genre is not without value or unique qualities. There are tools and thoughts in the genre that simply are not available outside -- second worlds constructed to specifically explore a point, explorations of physics of distant stars, blatant magic spells, alternate histories -- Stranger in a Strange Land, Watchmen, Brave New World, Frakenstien, and even Yiddish Poliecemans' Union (I dare you to sell that as Lit without being famous first :P ). There is extreme value here -- and extreme fluff, sure.

Your condemnation of an entire group of people based on a few bad apples relies strongly on white (geek) stereotypes throughout. This combined with your own shame shows your own High-School-Type (not racial, but definitely SOCIAL) Biases at work.

These flaws go the heart of your conclusion, not your research. As with any paper, when the conlcusion does not support the evidence -- and, indeed, undercuts itself -- it should be reexamined. Find your real conclusion and you will have a great piece here.

Until you do, this document will remain only one flame among many in a war that, in the end, will not and can never be won.

The war will end, sure. But no one will win it. It will just disappear one day -- because the next generation or the generation after them will simply NOT THINK ABOUT RACE ANYMORE. Everyone will just be another person -- perhaps with a different accent, a different religion, or a different color skin -- but just another person, accepted for who they are.


but my point is that the

but my point is that the elements of fantasy are not the sole province of the SF ghetto, and while the ghetto needs its fiction, the fiction does not need its ghetto and in fact everyone would be better off if they abandoned the ghetto mentality.

and maybe it's not clear from my conclusion that my beef with Geeks is not that they are geeks but that they seek in their adult life to perpetuate their social inversion based on the hotbox experience of highschool. I was an outsider myself in high school, i had as many friends who were geeks as I did friends who were into punk rock and friends who were preppies but i didn't belong to any of those circles. my problem is with people who get out of that situation and maintain the instituion in their own behavior. I have as little patience for the geeks who do that in the SF Ghetto as I do for the jocks who spend all their time thinking about football and the preppy assholes who think it matters what college you went to and really care about the signifiers of wealth and social status. it's all idiotic. and yes, i do have social biases against such people, but I do think that they are rational and reasonable ones that help keep me from playing the same stupid games those people play.

Important points: 1) Sure

Important points:

1) Sure you can use a *few* SFF elements in Lit fic, but there are rather distinct limits. Octavia Butler's "Wild Seed" or "Imago" would never get published in Lit fic. There has to be a home for such important work. I don't believe that you -- or anyone -- can in good conscience state that Octavia Butler's work (which earned her a MacArthur fellowship -- the first SFF writer to ever earn one) could be published in any other genre.

2) That said, I agree completely that the "Ghetto" should be torn down. I am a rebellious spirit at heart and have been trying to tear down all sorts of walls for years. I strongly agree with Chabon that there is great value to be had in SFF, but the insularity/cliquiness of the genre and the STIGMA of writing it sadly hold a lot of people back -- the stigma, in fact, makes it a safe place for some of the seedier elements to hide because only a captive audience is watching. A stigma, in fact, only increased by the tone of your article. If you want to deal the backward forces a blow, work to de-stigmatize the genre and bring it under a bright light.

3) Regarding the flaws I'm pointing out in your arguments: I simply don't want other SFF writers to be able to say "Well, he got that fact completly wrong" or "Wow, an ad hominem attack on Elizabeth Bear" and extrapolate "Doesn't he know the rules of debate? He just defeated his own argument." They can do that right now, and comfortably ignore the stickier and very insightful parts of what you say. They don't deserve an easy out. Don't give them one.

4) There is another flaw in your argument that has been bugging me more and more -- and I would like you to fix it (see #3 for the reason why). You go on at length about several of the racial, religious, and social biases about several historical SFF writers. You are right to bring these up and to point out how troublesome it is that some authors apologize for these authors or downplay the evilness of their thoughts (especially Lovecraft). These are very valid arguments, and should not be touched. However, one of your points supporting the idea that SFF should basically be destroyed and abandoned wholesale relied strongly on the idea that since several of the early writers in the field were racists, the whole genre is irredeemable. Note, you didn't just suggest abandoning the racists, but the whole field.

This is a fallacy of astounding magnitude. America at the turn of the century (and before) was often unrepentantly racist -- England was as well. To use your rule, we would have to abandon the entire corpus of English language literature. Also, classical German and even ancient Roman and Greek literature must also be thrown on the purging fires -- anyone that does not speak Greek, after all, is a "Barbarian" by the definition of the word. And barbarians are not people.


I hope to see more of your thoughts in the future, but I hope the polemics get left in a ditch somewhere :)


polemics are as polemics do

1.) I disagree. Not only are there some truly weird books that I would argue are absolutely literary fiction in their own right (House of Leaves, Radio Free Albemuth, Solaris, We, The Dispossessed, The Scar), but there are any number of truly weird works of literary fiction that could very well have been published as SFF if they'd been written in a more simplistic way to appeal to the rank and file (Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, Gentlemen of the Road, Insect Dreams, The artist of the missing, or the wonderful book I'm reading right now "The Manual of Detection"). The point being that the distinctions between the SF Ghetto and Mainstream/literary fiction is absolutely artificial and is maintained not for the convenience of readers and writers, but for their corporate masters in publishing. So much easier to say this is SF, we market it thus. Which is bullshit. genre distinctions in books are not material in the way they are in many other fields, and should be actively opposed by all writers. Anyone working within SF who wants to stay in the ghetto and thinks he's doing himself and his "community" a favor is purely and completely wrong. I haven't read a lot of Octavia Butler, but i disagree that she NEEDED the ghetto to be published. She could very well have written the same sorts of things as literary or mainstream fiction had she and her publishing company decided that was the way to go. More importantly, if she had been latino rather than african american, she probably would have been and her fiction would have been compared more openly with the "magical realism" of many of her contemporaries.

2.) you mistake my intention, the stigma of the ghetto is absolutely appropriate. I don't want to open it up and release the ass backwards attitudes and concerns of the ghetto into wider culture, i want to further marginalize it and drain all the talent out of it until it loses all hold on the cultural mindset of anyone who isn't already a lost cause. I want to strip it of reasons to exist by forcing a wider appraisal within culture of some of the tropes that have wrongly been held to be the sole property of the ghetto, when in fact that is not at all the case.

This is the important point that I don't think you're grasping and is leading you astray here: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and graphic novels are not identical with the communities that have laid claim to them. I don't want to eliminate that kind of story, I want to challenge the legitimacy of the community, which I call the SF Ghetto, claiming the genres as somehow intrinsically THEIRS. I want to decouple the problems of the community from the problems of the genre. More importantly, I pointed out that the genre itself isn't stigmatized hardly at all anymore. Lots of mainstream media uses these sorts of stories. Just look at how popular Lost or The Watchmen are right now. Which forces me to ask, well, if the genre is bigger than the ghetto, if it doesn't need the ghetto, why on earth would anyone want to exist within the ghetto. That stigma makes lots of sense to me, and that's why I advocate leaving the SF ghetto behind rather than trying to change it.

3.) anybody who thinks my use of insults invalidates anything I've said doesn't know how argument works, as clearly you don't. Ad hominem is only a logical fallacy when the attack on the person is used as a premise in the argument. I never say "Elizabeth Bear is a boneheaded writer therefore the sci fi ghetto should be abandoned." I do say "Elizabeth Bear is a boneheaded writer, and so a lot of people got angry about stuff she said." which is perfectly legitimate. You have also yet to point out any matters of fact that I got wrong. If there are any, please do I'd like to correct them. But so far as I can tell the only "flaws" in my argument are places where you disagree with the conclusions I've drawn.

4.) What are you talking about? I have never and will never advocate such a position. I don't think anyone should stop reading Lovecraft and I don't think anyone should stop reading fantastical literature. What I do think is that people should stop using fantastical literature of a signifier of group identity.

I am warning you right now that as far as I am concerned you are on very thin ice with me. I have a great deal of patience, but one thing I absolutely will not abide is straw men made of my arguments or people attributing positions to me that I do not hold simply to gain the upper hand in an argument. If you go there, I will delete your comments, ban you, and ignore anything you say going forward. I have no patience for people who use such underhanded tactics and if you do, you are proving yourself unworthy of engagement.


I have been respectful and thoughtful in speaking with you.
I have instead been met with anger and accused of underhanded tactics.

As for this:

"anybody who thinks my use of insults invalidates anything I've said doesn't know how argument works, as clearly you don't"

I was repeating only what I heard from the mouth of a particular friend of mine who was less impressed with your article than I was. But thanks for attacking me. It makes it so much easier for me to convince him of the merits of your article. :/

Forgive me, I thought I had finally found a calm and logical person with whom I could discuss a very difficult and very tangled topic.

Have I, or have I not?


PS -- As for your ice, you should be glad you had a new reader. HAD being the operative term. Very briefly.

you have not been respectful.

you have not been respectful. you are attributing positions to me that I do not hold, and are failing to back up your claims with evidence of why you think these things. I'm more than willing to have a reasonable discussion with you, however, I don't tolerate being made a straw man and I will not play that game.

you have made two specific claims that are specious. first you've said that I invalidated something I said by using an ad hominem fallacy. I say I've done no such thing. You are welcome to point out where you think this occurred. You have now taken my refutation of that point, and have chosen rather than meeting the challenge to take it as a personal attack when clearly it wasn't. I was pointing out that if you think what i said was fallacious then you don't understand how argument works, which is true given that there are no fallacies in my argument ad hominem or otherwise. reasonable people can differ on matters of fact and matters of interpretation, and you're welcome to point out those. Where you have, I have tried to explain why I differ on those points. I will not, however, play the game of defending myself from false accusations such as the one you're parroting from your friend that my argument is flawed becuase it is founded on an attack on the person making the argument. I have done no such thing and if you really do want to have a reasonable discussion and you want me to take your other points seriously, you have to refrain from such specious arguments. As I say, i consider it extremely disrespectful and insulting and I won't tolerate it.

second, you have claimed that I argue that "SFF should be destroyed." I argue no such thing. You are attributing to me here a position that I do not hold, and more importantly, it is a ridiculous position that no one should hold. THAT is a classic informal fallacy of creating a straw man, and is also extremely disrespectful and insulting. Put plainly, I will not argue with someone who stoops to that sort of intellectual dishonesty.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but the anger here came from these two points, which I clearly explained in my previous points, and which I feel is entirely justified. I do NOT think I have been at all underhand in my respnse to you, and I challenge you to point out where I have been. Yes, I have insulted you, and yes, you completely deserved it. If you want to insult me, I have no problem with that per se, but don't hold your nose and arrogate yourself to the highground when such behavior gets you insulted in return.

Now, I'm willing to chalk this all up to misunderstanding if you're willing to admit you were wrong on those points and/or present some evidence to support what you are claiming I am arguing for and henceforth confine your criticism to things I've actually said rather than projecting arguments on me. But I have to say, based on what I've seen so far, I'm not going to hold my breath while I wait for that to happen. being insulting and then claiming to be insulted by the angry response you receive is a classic trolling strategy, and as far as I'm concerned it's on you to demonstrate that you genuinely want dialog in good faith and aren't just trying to stir up trouble for it's own sake.

Also, perhaps you should read

Also, perhaps you should read Octavia Butler before you group her in with Magical Realism. Or anywhere else. Seriously. She is more outsider than almost anyone I can think of. Fully realized secondary worlds that bear almost NO resemblance to our own, characters of entirely alien species that have THREE sexes (male, female, and one in between that makes mating possible.)

Come to your own conclusions about her work, but read it. Everyone should.


Piers Anthony did that in the

Piers Anthony did that in the Cluster series earlier. And I certainly hope you won't dispute that he's a hack. In fact, his hackery makes me think it's entirely likely that the idea for three sexes (which also showed up in Alien Nation now that I think about it) isn't quite the revolutionary idea that you're making it out to be. Aristophanes recounts a mythical time when humans had three sexes in Plato's symposium after all. If you haven't read it, the same story can be found in one of the songs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

the point being, and here we're veering off into another strand of the discussion, the SF ghetto is often overly fond of complex world building and is also occasionally a bit credulous in the face of ideas that seem novel. but because the ghetto is so insular, it's rare that things are seen on a broader literary scale and evaluated accordingly. Which is to say that it may be that Olivia Butler was a talented writer deserving of every last bit of praise that she's been given, but I think it remains to be shown that some other genre lable couldn't have served her just as well, if not better.

After all, and this is the one thing that the SF ghetto really needs to realize, all writers of fiction are world builders, even pyschological realists. Fictional worlds must exist for fiction to take place. Some fictional worlds are a great deal different from the actual world, but the SF ghetto is not a safe haven for that, it goes on everywhere there is fiction. If anything SF Ghetto fiction is much WORSE at it than other genres because there are so many cliche's of world building that get repeated ad nauseum within the SF Ghetto.


I think S is arguing in good faith and I think there's a point to be made that by using belligerent language, J might be turning off the very people he's trying to persuade. (Even if he isn't making any sort of logical fallacy in doing so.) I also think both of you are getting a little hot-headed and defensive.

J, I think you need to understand that when you say that the SF community is a bad thing, you're going to piss off the people in that community, even when your conclusions are perfectly reasoned (whether or not they're right or wrong). It might behoove you to put things a little more delicately to get people to listen.

S, be careful you don't put words in people's mouths, and if you're unclear about something J said you should ask what he meant by it. You state J's position as "SFF should basically be destroyed and abandoned wholesale ... since several of the early writers in the field were racists, the whole genre is irredeemable." This is, in fact, not what he was saying, rather he said that certain racist tendencies and concepts from early writers had been copied over and over again and ingrained into the SF culture, and that that was what was troublesome. One could see how he might take your statement as a deliberate over-simplification for the purpose of making him look bad (that is, making him a straw-man) but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that this was a simple misinterpretation. If you want to have reasoned arguments, be careful how you restate your interlocutor's points, and if you're not clear on them, ask.

no doubt i'm going to piss

no doubt i'm going to piss off people in the community, but I'd also argue that I wasn't particularly belligerent in this piece. The only person I specifically called out as not up to snuff is Elizabeth Bear, and I mean, c'mon, she's not exactly George Eliot now is she... I did call a group of people fucking idiots, but their being fucking idiots is the conclusion of that argument, not the premise. Their being fucking idiots is a direct result of their espousing a position that is fucking idiotic. Who is it that believes things that are fucking idiotic? fucking idiots. sine qua non. I will point out that that group is not in fact coexxtensive with the SF Ghetto or community or whatever you want to call fandom. in fact, that group is more likely than not to be something external to the ghetto as the definition of racism given that leads to that particular grip of belligerence is more common in certain segments of the incoherent left (anarcho capitalists, crusaders of the identity body politick, and various members of the illiterati who have arrived at radicalism with more heart than brain and generally don't bring much to the table when they try to join the conversation).

so while point taken, tactically, calling someone an idiot as part of your attempt to convince him to stop being an idiot is making that job tougher than it needs to be, I really don't think there's much evidence for that in anything I've said on the subject. Which is why I find it so objectionable to be scolded for doing it, E.

I typically haven't liked

I typically haven't liked this blog the handful of times I've read it. However, I have to admit, this is a pretty excellent, well executed piece.

The one part where I think you fall down:

"3.) It excuses racial prejudice as not racist and because it shifts the focus of discussion from issues of personal belief to the exercise of social power generally ignores the fact that the problem of racism is not in fact institutional, but the basic fact that there are individuals who have problems with other individuals based solely on their skin color and then act to oppress those people through whatever mechanisms are available to them, which in turn causes the institutional problem that the argument takes to be basic."

You underestimate the complex institutions as social constructs, and oversimplify "individual racism". On the latter score, I thought of a series of studies discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (which might be summarized in this book http://www.infibeam.com/Books/info/Ian-Ayres/Pervasive-Prejudice-Unconventional-Evidence-of-Race-and/0226033511.html), in which the researchers sent out "agents of different races and genders posing as potential buyers to more than 200 car dealerships in Chicago." The buyers were all given similar wardrobes, the same fictional educational and work background, etc in an attempt to equalize characteristics aside from race and gender. Of course, the dealers charge significantly more to African-Americans and women (the agents who were both were doubly screwed). With this being said (as I think Gladwell points out), all of the dealers would probably be appalled to think of themselves as racist, and probably say, entirely in good faith, that they would never judge someone on the color of their skin. So reducing racism to the simplistic formulation you describe above, with a cackling, evil racist, twisting his moustach and planning his next KKK rally, sidesteps the more difficult and complex questions about race and perspective in our society. While, certainly, this individual still exists in our society (in numbers far too great), racism is far too subtle and too tightly woven into the fabric of our social and cultural institutions for your definition to be useful.

that's not quite what i meant

i don't mean to deny that institutional racism doesn't exist, but rather challenge the notion that racism IS institutional racism and that institutional racism is somehting other than the practices of individuals with authority.

also, I think that you're being too forgiving of the car dealers. there are an awful lot of straight white men in america that are truly horrible racists.

for more on the proper way to define racism in a useful way, see this post: