I can’t be the only person in this world who wishes Steven Brust and Ta-Nehisi Coates were talking more, at least where I could hear it. Initially I just figured that they were two smart, well-spoken, well-informed people with shared interests in the Civil War and fantasy literature, and it was hard not to imagine an interesting conversation eventuating. As I’ve been reading them regularly over the months and years, some other trends emerge, both commonalities and contrasts. They’re both decidedly to the left of center, but it’s not the same “left” whose center of mass is people like me, i.e. mainly white folks with advanced degrees from brand-name universities who have a lot of opinions and don’t do a whole lot — although those people do, I think, form a large part of their audiences. They’re both from working-class backgrounds; both low on formal education, although the depth and facility of their thinking don’t appear to have suffered for it; both raised in families engaged in the work of revolution. Brust identifies as a revolutionary, but his brand of revolution doesn’t really have a place for racism as an organizing force in society, instead classifying it as a special instance of class war. Coates does not identify as a revolutionary yet, but in his recent “blue period” his dissection of the racist roots of American society is so comprehensive that it’s hard to imagine revolution can be far from his mind.
That’s perhaps overstated for parallelism’s sake. OK. But it arises not entirely inorganically when you read, from a recent post on capital punishment:
In America, the history of the criminal justice—and the death penalty—is utterly inseparable from white supremacy.
If you’ve been reading Coates in the last year, you know that “criminal justice” can be replaced with any X short of possibly dog breeding. I could say “in his opinion,” and that would be true, but I don’t want to dismiss it as just opinion–I think he makes a good case; I think it might really be true. Coates goes on to say
Understanding this, it is worth asking whether our legal system should be in the business of doling out an ultimate punishment, one for which there can never be any correction.
(The quoted “this” has a different referent in context, but I think the one implied here will serve.) Yes, it is worth asking. But it is also worth asking the next question, or rather, all of them at once: What should such a legal system be in the business of doing?
This isn’t meant to be a rhetorical question, at least not in the sense that it exposes an absurdity or a contradiction. I’m just trying to get where it goes. Criminal justice has a racist history, granted; racism still corrupts the practice of criminal justice today, acknowledged. Then what? If we shouldn’t accept this corruption in the death penalty, why should we accept it elsewhere in the law? If we shouldn’t–what do we do?
I don’t mean to suggest Coates should have an answer here. I’d appreciate one, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of anatomizing the problem. In any case, I wrote this post because the problem made me think of Brust and revolution. If the corruption in the system, whatever that is, is bone-deep and indelible, is there any other option?
Well, I imagine Coates saying, there’s always getting by. Living how you can. Talking about the problems, not out of any hope of fixing them, but out of fear that they’ll get worse if they’re overlooked. That’s a genuine form of hope, I guess; and even if it isn’t, maybe the idea that hope is necessary is an affectation of those who’ve never had to go without it.
John Scalzi’s latest Big Idea is LONG HIDDEN: SPECULATIVE FICTION FROM THE MARGINS OF HISTORY. I still need to finish Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America”. From experience, it’s easy for nerds to think this stuff doesn’t matter. But there are whole worlds you wouldn’t think to build; whole worlds I’m sure I never will.
A few things brewing in the short fiction arena, though nothing along the lines of “sold a story somewhere” –
- “Your Voice Everywhere I Go” is still at tor.com, where it’s been for nearly a year now; as before, this means some of the editors liked it, but the acquiring editors have yet to look at it, or at any rate have yet to decide.
- “Continents of Summer, Firmaments of Sun” was rejected from THE COMMON and has been at ASIMOV’S for a couple of weeks now. No reason for optimism that it’ll be accepted, but at least I’m moving forward with it.
- I’ve finished a draft of the first Department of Crimes against Scum story, tentatively titled “Suicide Scum.” Not totally sure what to do with it. It definitely needs revision; I think the next question is whether I bother trying to sell it or just put it straight on Wattpad and the stores.
- “Dispatch from a Colored Room” continues to syndicate drib-by-drab on Wattpad, but it’s now finalized, so I could self-publish it whenever I want. I guess there’s not really a good reason to wait. (“Dispatch” is meant to be a free introduction to THE DANDELION KNIGHT, so there’s not a whole lot of point in trying to sell it.)
- Perhaps most interestingly, I’ve either been invited or invited myself (sort of hard to say) to a Wattpad anthology of stories about summer. I’m simultaneously trying out a couple of things, one a typical-for-me wistful near-future literaryish story called “Summer Sister,” and one a story in the world of THE EIGHTH KING called “Sack of the Summer Palace.” I think I like the latter better, and will finish it regardless, but may not be able to keep it below the word limit.
This is mostly to remind myself that things are happening in my creative sphere, despite my constant nagging feeling like nothing is getting done.
Oh, right, here’s the first paragraph of “Sack of the Summer Palace”:
The Rafters of the World are justly and unjustly famed for many things. The mandarins of the Orchid Court praise the refinements of poetry, strategy, and agriculture that have draped our dry and craggy lands with the rich silk of a flourishing society; the lamas of the White Way praise the favor of the deities that brought us the great prayer-engines of the Iron Harvest, whose secrets are like oysters, sweet to the persistent mind and lacerating to the hasty; the half-civilized zealots of the River whisper in fear of our deadly snakes, which they describe in terms that violate the precepts of physics and physiology, and croon with longing at the merest mention of our unremarkable goats. But even the albino barbarians, who betimes blow in on the spars of shattered ships or stumble arrow-pierced across our border with the Grass, are clear on one thing: Ua is not a warm realm. Warm days there are, aye, and warm regions, especially in the south of Degyen where the tableland begins its kowtow to the sea; but the kingdom’s fame is for chill cliffs, tree-deep avalanches, bears and tigers with fur enough to hide a brace of Therku lumberjacks and warm their lunchpails.
One for the philosophers, maybe.
An online community in which I participate is currently engaged in a pseudo-periodic paroxysm over feminism as it relates to changing one’s name at marriage or vice versa. I’m generally in favor of feminism and have a vague sense that the idea of “choice feminism” is vacuous inasmuch as it amounts to sanctifying acts based on the genitals of the actor—but there’s much I don’t know about the history of feminism, to say nothing of the history of marriage, changing one’s name thereat, naming in general, and all sorts of things that seem keenly relevant to the astonishing variety in the ways that contemporary (liberal, overeducated) Americans choose to name themselves and their offspring throughout their lives. So I don’t especially want to engage.
In thinking about whether or not to engage, though, I arrived at a way to classify ideologies that may or may not be interesting. The question that arose in my mind was, “Is it feminist to insist that others be feminist?” Internet caricatures of feminational socialism notwithstanding, I think the answer is at least plausibly “no.” It depends on which others, of course, but part of the very impetus for feminism is the fact that lots of women are very badly oppressed and suffer sanctions when they stand up for themselves. Insisting that women court death or maiming in exchange for a negligible effect on such a culture doesn’t seem like a pro-woman thing to do. (The same might apply to men in such cultures as well, but doing something disadvantageous to men is less obviously non-feminist.)
Anyway, it seems strange for an ideology to have such a property, and you could try to view it as a defect. But I’m not sure it is—or if it is, I think it’s widespread. Generalize the question to “Is it X to insist that others be X?” If X is “Christian,” I probably know more Christians who would answer “no” than “yes” (obviously some would answer “yes”). If X is “left-wing” as Americans understand it, I think the answer is almost certainly no—or, at least, the American left tries to make a good show of tolerating some cultures with values that don’t sit well with their (our?) own. Presumably the answer is “no” for any non-evangelical religion; it’s interesting to wonder whether it’s true for “tolerant” or “open-minded.” As for “agnostic,” well, hard to know.
On the flip side, there are ideologies for which this is straightforwardly true. “Fascist” would be the most obvious one, and you could spend a while playing a left/right split here, but I think it’s not quite so clear. “Environmentalist” seems to be a big yes, for example; likewise “vegetarian” and “vegan,” although those bump a bit because they read more as practices than ideologies. “Libertarian” is a minor minefield—it seems like the answer ought to be “no,” but libertarians do in fact proudly insist on less government for everybody, which, when you phrase it that way, magically transmutes it from individualism to paternalism (“If you just *understood* how much better off you’d be with less government, you’d vote for me”).
There’s obviously a bit of wiggle room here. A lot turns on the word “insist” and the unquantified word “others”; changing those would change a lot of answers. But I don’t think I’ve construed them in ridiculous ways above.
In any case, once you’ve got such a classification system, the question is what it’s good for. I suppose the obvious prediction it makes is about memetics: “no” ideologies should be at an evolutionary disadvantage relative to “yes” ideologies, because “yes” ideologies carry a stronger urge to self-replicate. But is this really true? It’s hard to tell in part because it’s hard to make a minimal contrast between “yes” and “no” ideologies; going back to the ur-example, you can perhaps imagine feminisms with different answers, but they’d be different in ways other than the answers, perhaps most notably in that they appeal differently to the self-interest of different groups of women. Putting that aside, though, it doesn’t seem clear that “no” ideologies are all that unsuccessful. Buddhism seems like the paradigm “no” ideology, and it is huge and ancient (acknowledged: there are many Buddhisms, perhaps some are evangelical, I’m not an expert). Fascism is, as I half-joked above, the paradigm “yes” ideology, and it has enjoyed terrifying epochs of dominance—but has it ever been as popular as Buddhism?
I don’t have a great coda here, except maybe this: The urge to self-replicate might not always be the dominant consideration in the success of *any* kind of replicator, memetic or otherwise. This seems like a proof of concept, at least, that there can be other ways to take a firm grip within a population characterized by ceaseless and ruthless competition.