Is there Room for a Social Justice Warrior in the Future?

Amy Wallace writes in WIRED’s November 2015 issue about the battle for diversity in science fiction. I still don’t quite understand how such a outspoken group of authors managed to seize control of the nomination ballots, or how the voting panel (apparently it costs $40 to register to vote) so easily defeated these whitewashed proposals (with votes instead for “No Award,” but the argument itself is a familiar one. A group of purists attempts to remove any science-fiction nominees that don’t conform to their standards, claiming that it’s a matter of “quality” more than anything else. But whereas casting directors have a slightly firmer statistical ground (one that’s constantly eroding) to stand on when they suggest that minorities aren’t leads because they don’t sell as many tickets, that’s less of a concern when it comes to Hugo Awards, where the subjects in question have all already been published, and their works can be objectively read. I don’t dispute that there are definitely moves to publish a more representative swath of authors–just look at the controversy over Sherman Alexie’s attempts at inclusion for the Best American Poetry 2015–but this isn’t that. White, straight, male authors aren’t deliberately being overlooked; our depictions of the future (which as the article points out, is just an allegory of the present) are simply changing, and it’s crazy to see people try to argue against it. (I mean, wasn’t part of the fun and daring of the original Star Trek in its somewhat progressive treatment of characters? Embracing aliens, minorities, etc.?)

There’s definitely room to critique N. K. Jemisin for shoehorning in bisexual or gay subplots into her latest novel, The Fifth Season, especially when there are already so many good parallels regarding how the much-feared (and powerful) orogonists are treated and controlled by society. But that novel also daringly swaps between three narratives (connected in a way that I don’t want to spoil) and even goes so far as to play with second person for one of them, and the one small issue some might have with her writing (and it’s not as if other Hugo winners haven’t had equally all-flash sex scenes that titillate more than propel the plot) shouldn’t detract from everything else. This is not a novel, in other words, that is just dabbling in science-fiction because it’s somehow “easier” to win an award there than in another category–this isn’t the Emmy Awards.

Moreover, that’s not really even the argument that the opposition to Jemisin et. al. is making. You’ve got people like Theodore Beale who are literally calling Jemisin “an educated, but ignorant half-savage” and attempting to then say that he’s just being “provocative.” But when someone announces that “We should run a train on that bitch,” maybe it’s time that we look at the language of the opposition more than that of the respectable, published authors who they are calling out in the most trollish ways. Personally, I prefer George R. R. Martin’s response: “The reward for popularity is popularity. It’s truckloads of money. Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?” This is why I preferred the off-Broadway Obie awards (and the off-off Innovative Theater Awards) to the popularized Tonys; it wasn’t always about the slickest production values, the most “traditional” or tour-able productions–it was about the ability to conjure up something of meaning, sometimes with next to no resources, and to make an audience stop and think. Perhaps the Hugo Awards, like this year’s semi-protested Oscars, are doomed to be a meaningless award, replaced by Martin’s newly proposed (and more inclusive) Alfie Awards. But the idea that this is all about social justice is nonsense; in science-fiction novels, robots are often speaking for themselves. In the present, these books are more than capable of doing the same.

In the End, We Become Them

Andy Greenberg’s piece for WIRED (April 2015) on the struggle to smuggle information into North Korea is very readable. But while the cause is obviously just–expose an indoctrinated people to the reality of the outside world in the hopes that they will revolt against their oppressive, tyrannical government–I wonder just a little bit if the means (propaganda) aren’t committing the exact same sin of omission, in the fact that we’re carefully curating the sort of contraband that we ship into North Korea. Yes, we’re offering them a different window, and that’s good, and perhaps full exposure might send the wrong message about our values–but isn’t the point that we should be letting people decide? It’s the same issue we face in America: those who watch and read the news, even FOX, are ostensibly more educated and perceptive to what’s going on in the exterior than those who live in insulated bubbles–but it’s only by confirming and deepening this understanding of “facts” through real-world experience and other first-hand sources that we actually learn what the world is actually like. (And even then, not totally.)

Besides, who are we to determine what exactly will be the tipping point for a North Korean? Would we ever have expected that Friends, of all shows, would be the thing that made people more welcoming of Western values? (Maybe the unspoken racism appeals to them.) Or that Titanic would be so inspiring– as Yeonmi Park puts it in the article, “In North Korea, they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dying for a girl he loves.” It’s a bit discouraging, then, to read that North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (led by an escaped North Korean who used to work for their thought police, confiscating contraband) actually screens media for a “defector focus group” in order to better “smuggle in the materials with the most impact.” On the one hand, I see the need not to waste valuable resources smuggling in content that won’t spur the population to act, but at the same time, shouldn’t this be the people’s choice? And aren’t resources being spent, after all, airing Superbad to these testers instead of just casting it out, message-in-a-bottle style on a USB drive, and seeing what happens? Some of our products definitely make America look stupid, but if we’re honest and open enough to show that–to show all of that–isn’t that a point in our favor, especially if we’re comparing that to the secrecy and closure of the punitive North Korean government?

If WikiLeaks chose which data to release, or offered to compromise with governments by continue to censor material that was especially sensitive, wouldn’t that massively devalue the site itself, given how difficult trust is to earn and protect? Same too, perhaps, with North Korea: let’s find a way to get them access to everything, and let them figure out how to use it.

In trying to understand why smart Establishment-conservative commentators…so uniformly underestimated Trump’s appeal among Republican voters for so long, you have to start by assuming that they were in denial…about how his baser instincts might appeal to some in their party’s angry base. But insularity may have played as big a role as denial. Most Republicans are not racists, and race is hardly the whole Trump story, yet it’s not clear that the elites got any of the story.

This is Frank Rich, writing in New York‘s 3/21-4/3 issue, but I have to wonder how he reaches the assertion that “most” Republicans are not racists. If you’re willing to support Trump–a man who cannot immediately denounce the KKK, lazily stereotypes and targets Mexicans and immigrants, and calls for protestors to be beaten as they once were in the good old days of the openly racist ’60s–then you are a racist. That’s the entire story. It doesn’t matter what else Trump might stand for (and that’s hard to tell); this one issue should be enough to disqualify him. No matter how much the Republicans might want to sweep all three branches, to appoint new Supreme Court justices, to push through legislation, if they’re willing to even temporarily support a racist to make it happen, then they, themselves, are racists.

One of the great things about Trump’s campaign–really, the only great thing–is that it strips Republicans of their ability to feign ignorance or insularity, to suggest that their hands are tied when it comes to abortion reform (because of Roe v. Wade) or that they’re being stymied by those elitist bastards on the other side, smeared unjustly by the media. They’ll still try to play the victim–many Republicans could benefit from a second career playing soccer–but it should be nakedly apparent that in supporting Trump, they’re condoning racism. And those who don’t see that? Well, they’re racists.

For the LULZ, or, Publishing Today

Popular Science has never really been an in-depth journal–you can tell as much from the name of the publication, which emphasizes the “popular” aspects far more than the “science.” Don’t get me wrong, they sneak a lot of interesting DIY projects in there, and there’s plenty of cursory information about upcoming developments if you want to move on to something slightly more complex like WIRED, or an actual scientific journal. But I couldn’t help but laugh at this particular bit from their Future of Money issue (January/February 2016):

I even visited a strip club, where I convinced the exotic dancer to create a Bitcoin wallet while I watched.

First off, there’s something deeply creepy about the way the author Kashmir Hill (who goes uncredited in the print issue) uses the phrases “convinced” and “while I watched.” Then there’s the classic language used for “strip club” and “exotic dancer.” Now, there’s a valid point to be made about how Bitcoin is so accepted now that you can even use it in an establishment that Popular Science presumably views as lowest-common denominator (i.e., stupid, technologically backward). But the way it’s presented as a one-line throwaway (and, of course, it’s the pull-quote for this page-long article) speaks to the luridness of the publishing industry. (An irony not lost on me, considering that I’m pulling out the same line for comment.)

If the stripper’d already had a Bitcoin account, I’d be totally behind this article; the fact that the journalist had to set him/her up with one suggests that the author manipulated things in order to get a nice line (and an amusing thing to put on an expenses invoice). This doesn’t speak to a changing economy or industry, then, so much as a one-off stunt that a journalist was supposedly able to convince a dancer to agree to. (I’m guessing that the club itself didn’t allow Bitcoins to be used in payment for drinks or anything else.) It feels exploitative, and while it’s apropos of something, that something’s as artificial and soulless as it gets.

Readings: The President We Deserve

Noreen Malone wrote an article for New York magazine called “Oh, And He Is Also Driving Some Liberals Crazy,” about Donald Trump. You can find it in the 3/7/16-3/20/16 issue. The main takeaway is that we all created and incubated Trump–this isn’t just on Fox News alone, nor the populist Tea Party. Colbert, as did we all, joked about Trump’s zero-percent chances of winning the primary, which made us all eager to tune in and see what he’d do or say next. (Think Bulworth.) But part of this was out of genuine delight in hearing actual honesty out of a politician–even if it was abhorrent. As Malone writes:

For the past 40 years, even as candidates have moved toward greater levels of narcissism and power-seeking, they’ve also moved toward greater precision in their narratives, in their sound bites, in their adherence to lawyerly correctness and deadly carefulness. A news cycle that hungrily fed on “gaffes” seemed to guarantee that only personality-free robots who made the fewest unforced errors would ever become the nominee.

That’s not entirely true, if you look at Bush triumphing over Gore, but it at least hints as to why Trump might have been entertaining–at first. But then Malone continues:

Trump’s directness, his ridiculousness, his often spot-on and fascinating cruelty–he’s the star of a premium-cable show about a billionaire-populist anti-hero running for president, one we loved until we realized it couldn’t be turned off. Now the question becomes: How do you feel when real life is adapted from television, rather than the reverse?

This is what terrifies us. As in Idiocracy, we’re on the verge of voting for a cult of personality, for dumb spectacle and brash, unsupportable ideas, as opposed to actual governance. We distrust intelligence, because the truth is that the majority of us are petty, not-smart people, and–as one person suggested as a justification of all the various negative -isms out there–when we realize our own shortcomings, we love to see that there’s at least one other person lower on the rung than we are. There’s a person on my Facebook feed (a friend of a friend, thankfully), who insists that Trump must be elected on account of a single political issue–Clinton and Sander’s apparent support of partial-birth abortions (which is less about the thing itself and more about the wording of the laws that have tried to stop it, and the slippery slope that comes of restricting choice). Nobody cares about next season–we’re living from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and there’s always an even worse Big Bad hiding in the wings, should we manage to dispatch Trump.

Before they were popularized in the media, vampires used to be traditionally dispatched by sunlight–the idea being that no evil could stand being exposed to the pure good of the day. True Blood let vampires skirt that with fairy magic, The Vampire Diaries created magical daylight rings, etc. Trump’s a political vampire being kept aloft by the magical thinking of monomaniacal supporters; expose his lies and weaknesses and he simply keeps moving. The only way to beat bad television is to stop watching, and yet the worst, lowest-denominator shows seem to keep being renewed. (Thanks, Chuck Lorre!)

Be prepared to welcome our first Television President into the White House. Why couldn’t it have been Jed (Bartlet)?

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