Tag Archives: politics

Animals in the House

20 Apr

Happy Easter — whatever that happens to mean to you. For me, it’s a four day weekend and chocolate bunnies and candy eggs. Oh, and cute baby chicks and frolicking lambs.

Meanwhile, down in Toronto, the Prime Minister’s wife is at the Toronto International Film Festival showing of a film about Internet cats — all in aid of the Humane Society.

Speaking of cats, there is a large, presumably whiter than white, one among the pigeons as a result of the Hugo nominations announcement yesterday. Lots of gloating and outrage all around.

Some people say we should change the way nominations are done; some say we should abolish the awards altogether. A bit like calling for an end to democracy because your candidate didn’t win (or more likely, theirs did).

I say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. I say, you can’t have a horse race if half the horses are hobbled. I say, we should address the elephant in the room.

Nominations for the Hugos and, I suspect, for the Nebulas, and for any award where people get to nominate and vote are subject to all the benefits and flaws of any democracy (and don’t get me started on juried awards). Voters may be driven by the loftiest ideals or the lowest partisan motives — sometimes both at the same time. Voters may be deeply immersed in the issues or voting based on a single issue. Voters may care intensely about the merits of candidates or be concerned only with loyalty to the tribe, however that tribe might be defined. Moreover, people have always campaigned for recognition and sometimes for inclusion on the ballots. Some people have even campaigned for other people to be on the ballot (I myself have recommended several books/stories I liked; sometimes, though not always, written by people I liked).

Anyone who thinks it’s only about the art is naive; those who believe it’s all about popularity are cynical. Even if it is about the art, art has always been political to a greater or lesser extent. Ezra Pound comes to mind.

As John Scalzi has already said, people are on the ballot because they are qualified to be on the ballot, that is, because enough people followed the rules and nominated them to be on the ballot. The five or so who made it, in each case, got more nominations than anyone else did.

As for whether they deserve to be there… under the rules, they absolutely do. Artistic merit? History will decide that not the people who nominated and not the people who wind up voting. Bulwer Lytton comes to mind — more popular than Dickens in his time; now remembered mostly for “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The Hugos are interesting in one respect. While those who nominate the Nebulas (and the Canadian Aurora Awards for that matter) are also qualified to vote for the Awards, the Hugo voters are significantly different than the nominators.

You are qualified to nominate if you were/are a member of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 WorldCons at the time nominations closed. To vote you have to be a member of the 2014 World Con. Voters are therefore a subset of the nominators PLUS anyone who buys a 2014 membership between the close of nominations and the close of voting. Hard to say what that means, though looking at last year’s results you can see that getting the most nominations was not always a guarantee of winning the award (though finishing first in the first count was).

Manipulating award ballots has been going on ever since there were award ballots. Block voting by clubs, open and secret ‘vote for me’ campaigns (especially those based on vote for me so we can screw the other people), even, it is rumoured, instances of buying fraudulent memberships have all been done in the past — and who can say how far in the past. The first two are, perhaps sadly, within the rules; the latter is not. Imagine such things happening in a democracy — think, Tammany Hall, Huey Long, the Hunt Brothers.

Everyone on the ballot deserves to be there. But whether they deserve to win, is another question. I know I will try to read all the entries — I say try because I have limited patience for bad writing — and will vote for the best of them. I will not prejudge any of them. I will support the most meritorious. In my opinion. Your opinion may vary.

So don’t monkey around — exercise your franchise and don’t be an ass about it.

News about publishing

New Books out from Bundoran Press — Strange Bedfellows and Breakpoint: Nereis.

Speaking of jury prizes, here’s one for women only.

And another for self-published writers. No cash but a review in The Guardian isn’t bad.

Alistair MacLeod dies.

The continuation of politics by other means

3 Nov

The military has always played an important role in science fiction, especially American SF. Heinlein was, seemingly, enamored of military service, sometimes proposing in his fiction that citizenship should depend on ‘doing one’s duty.’ The tradition is rich and not completely one-sided in its conservative and occasionally jingoistic views. Joe Haldeman and Elizabeth Moon have both subverted the ‘traditional’ view of military service and its role in a civil (and civilized) society, though they each approached the task from a different angle.

What I find interesting, from a Canadian point of view, is the extent to which science fiction has embraced Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism: “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” The German word, Politik, can be translated as either ‘politics’ or ‘policy,’ though most cling to the former rather than the later. Some, I suppose, don’t see the difference.

Country A may have a policy of ensuring its energy security and uses its military to invade and control another country that has a rich supply of oil. This is indeed the continuation of policy but it is a one-way street. Once utilized, the problems caused by the military solution can only be solved by further application of the same instrument.  A political approach is much more subtle and utilizes a variety of means to achieve ends: negotiation, moral suasion, bribery, threats (both economic and military), forming alliances, public opinion, subversion, shunning and so on.

The political solution engages civilians to reach mutually (if not equally) beneficial agreements. The military solution only becomes central when all else fails. That is to say, war is not the continuation of politics but its termination. It is sometimes alarming to someone who truly believes in civility, democracy and the power of compromise to see how often politicians and activists, both right and left, who don’t entirely get their way resort to metaphors of war or actual violence. Still, it is surprising how often politics works, even in unlikely places.

We might use a real world example. The United States attempted to force Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons by threatening an attack. Russia, who had blocked international efforts to topple the Assad regime, saw a political opportunity and persuaded Syria to allow international inspection and destruction of its stockpiles. Why? Not simply to preserve an existing ally in the Middle East (though that was a factor) but to increase its credibility both there and on the world stage. Undoubtedly, Russia used all sorts of levers to accomplish in a few days what the American military establishment had failed to achieve in a year but that’s the whole point. Politics averted war – or at least a war that spread far beyond Syria’s borders. Meanwhile, Syria’s populace continues to suffer – who said politics was always about helping people?

War is more than the failure of politics; it is the enemy of an effective political system. States of war, real or imagined, have always been a tool for suppressing political activity. Louis Riel was hanged as a traitor, when his political efforts to hold governments to negotiated treaties failed and rebellion ensued. The British delayed workers’ rights and votes for women by either co-opting them or, when that failed, portraying the leaders of both movements as traitors to the War Effort in the Boer and First World Wars. World War II justified internment of Japanese citizens in Canada and the USA, effectively curbing their economic (and hence political) power for more than a generation. The Korean War helped fuel McCarthy’s attacks not just on supposed communists but also on civil rights leaders, union activists and other progressives. The Vietnam war justified harsh crackdowns on the left – Kent State, the Chicago 7 – though the hammer came down harder on black activists than on white middle class radicals like Tom Hayden and his then wife, Jane Fonda. As for the War on Terror – apparently the price of freedom is now eternal surveillance.

But let’s not leave the left out of this merry litany. Robert Mugabe came to power as a socialist reformer but soon picked a fight with former colonial powers to justify the confiscation of the farms of the rebellion’s putative leaders. Zimbabwe has since degenerated into a pirate state and Mugabe, now 89, rules on as a ‘democratic’ figurehead for a military dictatorship. The state of perpetual war footing in North Korea has ended all forms of political activity other than worship of the glorious Leader. Indeed, Kim Jong Il is merely following in the footsteps of Joseph Stalin, who saw counter-revolutionaries under every bed. I could go on but you get the idea.

What is it about a man in a uniform? Why do dictators immediately give themselves military ranks (if they don’t already have them) and parade around with chests full of medals? Why do democratic politicians find such a need to wear flak jackets and hang around with our men and women in the forces? Why do we elevate the military accomplishments of our ‘candidate’ and do everything we can to diminish the military record of theirs? I suspect it comes down to the status games of our primate brain. Of course, that tactic doesn’t always work – evolution rearing its ugly head. Pierre Trudeau, for example, has accused of avoiding the draft in World War II but he went on to spend 15 years as the Canadian Prime Minister (and, according to my father, did more to support veterans than any PM before him).

This may seem like I’ve drifted a long way from publishing and science fiction – and maybe I have. However, it arises out of my current editorial tasks. An amazing number of stories received for the Strange Bedfellows were military science fiction. Most of these came from Americans – though not all. Few made it to the second round – not because they weren’t good stories but because they weren’t political. A soldier who feels angst or confusion about war or has to pay a moral or physical price for doing their duty is not engaging in a political act. Crises of conscience can be deeply moving, can be important stories, but they are personal stories. While the personal may become political – as the feminist movement made clear – it is the act of ‘becoming,’ of moving from the private crisis to the public outrage that makes a story, or any human act, political.

Few of those military stories made it past the first round but some did; a couple will make it into the final anthology but only those one who examine war as the consequences of politics or explore the political fallout of militarism. Hopefully that will ring a bell – other than alarm bells.

Political Writing and Political Writers

24 Mar

After World War II, Ezra Pound, American poet and one of the key figures in the modernist movement between the wars, was imprisoned in Pisa, Italy, awaiting trial for treason. For twenty five days he was kept in a tiny open air cage –an early form of water-boarding. His crime was a series of radio broadcasts on behalf of the Mussolini government. The content of the broadcasts were, like his poetry, often esoteric and obscure and it is doubtful if many American G.I. Joes were much affected by Pound’s arguments about the evil of usury.  Still, there was no question they were anti-American, pro-fascist and, in their uglier moments, deeply anti-Semitic and racist.  But it was the treasonous elements of the broadcasts, not the illiberal ones, that led to his imprisonment.  Even in America, freedom of speech is not a defense against treason. 

Eventually, through the efforts of his lawyer and his literary friends, Pound was deemed unfit to stand trial and was confined to St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital for twelve years.  Despite this, he was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress in 1949 for The Pisan Cantos, poems largely composed during his imprisonment.  Throughout his time in St. Elizabeth’s, Pound continued to be supported by those whom he had supported  – Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, T.S.Eliot and Archibald McLeish.  On the other hand he also became close to people like Eustuce Mullins and John Kaspar, noted far-right activists and racists.  One of the last photographic images of Pound, after his release and return to Italy in the 1959, is of the elderly poet giving the fascist salute to a cluster of journalists.

Pound remains one of the most controversial figures in modern literature – not because of his writing, which was always political – but because of his politics.  Pound’s poetry and writings about literature remain powerful and beautiful (though his political and economic essays are naive and often ugly).  The Cantos, especially the Pisan Cantos, are arguably some of the greatest poetry of the twentieth Century.  Moreover, Pound was critical as an editor of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, instrumental in bringing “The Waste Land” to its final form.  He promoted and published writers such as Joyce, Hemingway and Frost.  Beyond that he was a pillar of the broader modernist movement with close ties to composer, George Antheil, and painters of the Dadaist and Surrealist schools.

Anyone reading the Cantos could see the politics implied in them.  The 1920s and 30s were the decades of the great “isms” – Communism to the left, Fascism to the right, Anarchism all over the place – and Pound dabbled in a number of them as he sought to answer the great question of the day: Who was to blame for the horror of the Great War?  As long as Pound remained in the literary world, he was on safe territory but as soon as he stepped into the realm of politics and, moreover, used his stature as a writer to promote his politics, he was viewed as a crackpot, a villain and eventually a traitor.  I can make no excuse for Pound’s politics.  To say it was typical of his time is hardly an excuse; even isolated in an apartment in Rome, he must have been aware of the consequences of blaming Jews for all the evils of the world.

But I’m still attracted to his poetry.  Even that is considered contentious by some (despite Pound’s demise more than 40 years ago).  There are those who say you cannot separate the artist from their art.  Some of the same people also claim that their characters are real to them and their books write themselves but logical consistency is not always the hallmark of creative people.

Science fiction is not immune from these controversies.  Orson Scott Card, for example, has been attacked for his views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, which has led to a negative reassessment in some quarters of his Hugo and Nebula winning work. A recent novella, Hamlet’s Father, was criticized as an attempt to link homosexuality to pedophilia, a charge Card denied.  His views have also led to boycotts, by some comic books stores, and delay of the DC Superman comic that Card was hired to write.  Elizabeth Moon, another Nebula winner, wrote a blog opposing the ‘ground-zero’ mosque and suggesting assimilation was the proper path to citizenship.  As a direct result her invitation to be Guest of Honour at WisCon 35, a feminist science fiction convention, was rescinded. 

Some would argue this is political correctness gone mad. [I can’t resist the irony that the term ‘political correctness’ was first used by the left as a form of self-criticism and a warning against political orthodoxy.  The use of it by the right just smacks of cultural appropriation, doesn’t it?]  There are those, both left and right, who defend ‘freedom of speech’ as paramount.  Americans, in particular, are nearly fanatical about First Amendment rights – almost to the point of persecuting those who question them.  In Canada, and even more so in Europe, we’re not so sure.  We have laws against hate speech – we’ve even put people in prison for engaging in it (Holocaust deniers for the most part.)  A recent Canadian Supreme Court decision drew a line where freedom of religious speech ends and criminal hate speech begins.  In Germany, even displaying a swastika can lead to criminal charges, though the government did recently permit the republication of Mein Kampf, banned since 1945.

For people of liberal views – that is, those of us who support democracy, human rights, individual freedom, open economies, social responsibility, multiculturalism and collective rights – the issue of free political speech for artists is conflicted.  Even people who defend the use of offensive language, images or ideas in art, cringe at those who want to move those ideas off the page, canvas or musical score into the real world of social action and politics.  I suspect it comes from two great misconceptions about artists.

The first is that artists have some special insight into the world.  They are, as Ezra Pound liked to call them, the ‘antennae of the race,’ gifted with the ability to see where we are going, or more, where we should be going.  Not surprisingly, science fiction writers (and their fans) might be particularly prone to this belief.  I even use the concept in my company slogan: Science fiction, our conversation with the future.  Artists and writers can no more predict the future than corporate executives (like the ones at RIM who didn’t foresee the popularity of touch screen devices).  Artists create art because they have an argument with the past and the present (in this they are philosophic cousins of scientists – who find previous explanations of current data unsatisfactory).  All art – especially great art – arises from these arguments, and the anger, the pain, the sorrow and the joy they generate.  From that view, a fascist in conflict with liberal society can create great art, without having any particular insight into how humans should live their lives.  Artists can be dead wrong about the world; their error, spilled out on the page or the canvas for all to see, is their accomplishment.  Assuming that they’re wrong, of course.

The second error is that art (and therefore artists) is always somehow progressive, that even when ugly it leads to the advancement of human society.  Nonsense.  Art in Stalinist Russia was used to great effect to support an oppressive state; the CIA countered by secretly funding abstract impressionism to prove democracy could support art the people hated.  Writing, art and music are used to sell running shoes and shotguns – useful devises I’m sure but hardly critical to the improvement of human civilization.  Art is not progressive (or reactionary for that matter) in the sense that it has an ‘aim’ or ‘purpose.’  It is progressive to the extent that it is a conversation between a perceptive individual who is troubled by the world and the world that troubles her.  It is progressive if it stimulates controversy and debate outside the world of art.  It is valuable if it makes us think about things that we find personally disturbing or contrary.  It’s why I can read Ezra Pound, despite his offensive politics, and still be deeply moved – and disturbed – by his words.  I might object to Card’s or Moon’s political views – and even find them contemptible as human beings – but I won’t necessarily stop reading them.  Others may differ – as is their right.

So what do I conclude?  Can art be separated from the artist who creates it?  I doubt it.  As an atheist and a materialist (and a left winger, though that is less relevant), it would be hard to imagine where art comes from if not from the conscious and sub-conscious impulses of the artist.  One’s political and moral values must be reflected in the arguments one makes with the world.  However, there is a difference between argument and polemic.  Great artists can (and often do) create lousy art – I suspect that happens most often when they cross the line from letting their art be political and try to make it do politics. 

In a week or two Bundoran Press will be releasing the guidelines to Strange Bedfellows, an anthology of political science fiction.  I haven’t quite finished writing them yet but I know one thing they will say.  “We are looking for well-written science fiction stories with strong plots and compelling, if not sympathetic, characters engaged in arguments with the world.  We want political stories, immersed in science, that take on those arguments without polemic but with passion – recognizing that causes have both effects and consequences.  We don’t care what your politics are; we just want you to tell a good story.”  Maybe, as a result, some people will boycott the book.  That would be a shame but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.