Monday, June 29, 2015

The Whiteness of Science Fiction: From the Hugo Awards' 'Sad Puppies' to Dylann Roof and Harold Covington

I have shared my experiences with the Whiteness of science fiction on several occasions here on WARN and also on the podcast. I have also confessed to my embarrassment regarding my summer of "grokking", shame at discovering that Robert Heinlein was a white supremacist, and subsequently throwing his writing into the veritable dustbin of work to not be read for purposes other than strict critical inquiry, as opposed to pleasure or joy.

There is an alternative reality knowledge propaganda producing machine that sustains the White Right and the broader Right-wing Republican establishment in the United States and the West. I knew that white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof was radicalized by cyber racism. 

But, I was surprised to learn that there may be some "science fiction" elements to Dylann Roof's sitting under the white supremacist hateful murderer learning tree.

The Guardian and Raw Story are reporting that Dylann Roof was (in part) radicalized by "science fiction" "author" Harold Covington.

From Raw Story:

One of the shadowy figures who appears to have influenced alleged Charleston killer Dylann Roof is Harold Covington, the founder of a white separatist movement and, within supremacist circles, an influential sci-fi author. Covington, the latest in a long line of rightwing sci-fi writers, has been linked to racist crimes in the past and this week called the massacre “a preview of coming attractions”...
Elizabeth Wheaton wrote about Covington in her book Codename Greenkil: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. “Covington was pretty much a minor player,” she told The Guardian. “He liked the Nazi image on the white power kinds of things, but he was kind of nerdy. Most of [the others] were country people or ex-military.”
“For all of his lacks, he does not lack the ability to turn a phrase,” said Wheaton. “He’s very articulate in presenting his message...” 
Much of Covington’s influence on his followers comes from his novels, which are written in a style that reads like someone spilled a 50-gallon barrel of ethnic slurs all over a stack of early-draft Robert Heinlein novels. His choice of cultural icons dates his books considerably, even the recent ones, which are filled with up-to-the-minute references to Jane Fonda and Gilligan’s Island, but the author probably doesn’t care about these criticisms. The books are not primarily novels, anyway. 
The Northwest novels “are not meant to be mere entertainment”, according to Covington’s website “They are meant to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The author wishes to inspire the creation of a real Northwest American Republic, and his novels are filled with a great deal of sound practical advice about how to do it.” 
There are five Northwest novels are all populated with similarly brave and heroic white men (“domestic terrorist-type dudes” in the words of Shane Ryan, the narrator of Covington’s A Distant Thunder), cruel, DW Griffith-style black people whose speech is written in dialect, and hand-wringing liberals who want nothing more than to stifle the right to free speech of (white) people who just want to secede from the US. 
On this and related matters, great author, as well as smart, incisive voice, John Scalzi shared how:
Covington comes from a long line of rightwing US fantasists, though most are far less extreme. Where film and literary fiction and visual art tend to trend left, American sci-fi has a definite rightward bent, from libertarian deity Heinlein (widely praised by both his ideological detractors and his fans) to Ayn Rand,Orson Scott Card and beyond.  
“Science fiction has always had a strain in it that has been conservative and libertarian and some combination of the two; that’s been kind of a prominent feature for a very long time,” said John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. “That in itself isn’t particularly problematic. Some of the most iconic writers in science fiction and fantasy have been conservative to libertarian. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them or the stories they tell. But like any group of people there are going to be folks whose politics are fairly fringe, and whatever comes out of their fringe is going to be fringe as well.”  
Scalzi is currently the target of one of those fringe figures, the openly misogynist and racist sci-fi writer Vox Day whose logrolling campaign to include more white men and fewer women and minorities in the Hugo Awards has attracted ire across the political spectrum and from the current king of fantasy, George RR Martin.
It would seem that there could be an overlap between the "Sad Puppies" racially resentful white folks (and their pathetic black and brown racial Stockholm syndrome allies) and the more formal and open White Right. The Whiteness of science fiction is united in the post civil rights era by White Supremacy gross, ugly, more polite, in some ways unapologetic, dishonestly "colorblind", and in all of its other toxic ways.

As I shared on the RT network last Friday evening, Dylann Roof and other Right-wing domestic terrorists are weaponized by Fox News and the Right-wing hate media. Part of this training is not limited to explicit and formal political texts. Political lessons are also taught by many types of media such as music, film, art, video games, comic books, and other types of literature.

A quibble: Covington's work sounds more like speculative fiction than it does "science fiction" (the widely known white supremacist tract The Turner Diaries fits this model as well). Most science fiction is by definition speculative in nature; speculative fiction is not necessarily science fiction. Words and concepts are important; meanings and definitions matter.

People of conscience, intelligence, and who are committed to intellectual honesty should fight against their slippage...especially when such shifts obfuscate the truth instead of illuminating it.

A thought: I find it fascinating that the White Right has resorted to speculative fiction in order to live out its fantasies of white domination and the subordination of people of color. This means that the White Right and its open White Supremacists believe that they have lost the battle along the color line in the near to mid term, are fighting a type of counterinsurgency, and hope that history and the future will bend to them through victory in a longer war.

By comparison, there are anti-racist progressives, liberals, and others who believe that America's centuries-long regime of white supremacy still dominates the Age of Obama in the form of a slightly modified Jim and Jane Crow that has won by adapting itself to neoliberalism, corporate democracy, and superficial multiculturalism.

What a puzzle. Are they both right? Neither? Or each correct, but just in different ways?


Scopedog said...

A great piece, Chauncey. As a life-long fan of SF who just happens to be a Black guy, I've become increasingly aware of the genre's Achilles' Heel--mostly people like Covington and on the polar opposite, Corey Doctrow (no, Mister Doctrow, there is no such thing as a free lunch and demanding that artists basically get nothing does not enhance art).

Of course, as you pointed out, just because some SF writers were libertarian or conservative does not mean that they wrote horrible stories--despite Scott Card's spin to the Right, I still enjoyed Ender's Game. Lovecraft's stories still send a chill down my spine, even though I know that he hated immigrants and people of color.

The recent events that you describe have also made me rethink the reaction to the "Prequel Trilogy" for Star Wars. Yes, we've heard the reasons why the films stank (personally, I think they were not as good as the original trilogy, but I still liked them, and thought Episode III was better than Return of the Jedi)--but after seeing the reaction to John Boyega's appearance in the trailer for The Force Awakens, I started to wonder if some of the hatred for the PT was due to the fact that, well, there was more color in the films--there were actors like Hugh Quarshie and Samuel L. Jackson playing important roles, and Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, or the fact that Boba Fett and his father Jango Fett were non-white (as were the soldiers of the Clone Army).

Of course, I am certain that I've read things wrong. I'm ready to be corrected.

j.ottopohl said...

Living in Ghana for years I have come to notice the types of books that are carried in the book shops here. Most of the authors are US and British rather than Ghanaian or African. Mysteries, thrillers, and detective novels as well as romance and vampire novels are popular. Science fiction is quite hard to find. There is some fantasy. I can only assume that the book stores focus on detective novels from the UK and US because they are popular with Ghanaians while Science Fiction is not.

DanF said...

Too much of the sci-fi I've read tended to be of the lone great-man bending the arc of history variety - conquering worlds (and women) and squishing space bugs or alien civilizations. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see why that appeals to libertarians and conservatives. The best sci-fi is not this of course. It makes you think more about our place in the universe and lets us see our humanity through the eyes of another being - Rendevous with Rama comes to mind.

I do think both your assertions are correct. I assume that for some people real life can never meet their expectations of a "just society". A racist won't be happy unless every person of color behaves in exactly the way that they want them to and the only way that can ever happen is in fiction. Even for us on the left, we have to create aspirational societies in fiction too because people kind of suck. Could the Federation of the Star Trek universe really happen and could humans play a central role in such an organization? I'm not so sure our species is up to the task...

Dan Kasteray said...

Personally I find that rightwing science fiction is an oxymoron. For the most part, in anywhere but America science fiction is about endless possibility, about pushing the frontiers. for me, Science fiction is Roddenberry casting a Russian as a good guy during the height of the cold war or the moral complexity and ambiguity of the Thrawn trilogy. Science fiction can be a vehicle or hatred, for small mindedness and bigotry, but it really shouldn't. I can't think of anything more depressing than the thought of a future that's more of the same old; it's the ultimate broken promise. Yet these idiots seem to think that the same old is not only good, but not enough and they want to go back to yesteryear.

Dan Kasteray said...

Science fiction is like gold mining. You've got to get through a lot of dead rock before you find the real gold. And a lot of science fiction has its roots in old expansionist imperialist fantasy, but there's still a lot of stuff out there that really gets you thinking and smiling.
As for your question regarding the Federation, I don't think it could come to be with us humans playing a central role. But let's hope that the actual future proves me wrong. And let's also hope that there is no future section 31

Dan Kasteray said...

Definitely there was a huge racist reaction to Star Wars. Actually the black guy who played that one storm trooper tweeted a tongue in cheek response to the myriad racist complaints about him being cast in the role.

Gable1111 said...

I can't comment on the science fiction angle, since I have not been a consumer of science fiction books. Last such book I read was "Dune.".

But as to the assumptions, here's my feedback:

I don't think the white right believes it has lost at this point, but that their beliefs are under siege. Obama's election was a sounding of the clarion call of sorts, which I think woke them up to the notion they were losing ground. Recent events seem to only have validated that belief. But they do feel the need to dig in and redouble efforts lest more ground is lost.

Interesting point to consider is how, when blacks are still essentially second class citizens if measured along the lines of economics, housing, employment and damn near every other social indicator, can any rational person think we have "taken over?" and here's where I believe we see the double edged sword of the science fiction/fantasy aspect of white supremacy. On the one hand, imagination is good; the simple notion that, if you can imagine it, then you can at least see the possibilities, if not pathways to making what you imagine reality. On the other hand, a heavy reliance on imagination, and in this case I throw in your typical racist stereotypes underpinning white supremacy, can cause when to become unmoored from reality to the point of being delusional.

For the white right/conservative/white supremacy groups, what they are really saying, I believe, is not so much "the other" has taken over, but that they no longer hold the dominance over POC and others as they once did. They don't want to just "live in peace" and "hold onto their heritage." they want to maintain that absolute dominance where even questioning these police murders, mass killings by right wing fanatics are not allowed, lest they be threatened.

John Barleycorn said...

I'm the first to acknowledge racist, homophobic, and misogynist implications in pop culture...but the prequels were just shit. Had nothing to do with race.
But then, I was a kid when the first three came out and loved them. It was only when I became an adult that I realized how dumb they really were. I was already an adult when the prequels came out, so...
One way I still think the original movies outshines the shit out of the prequels is the effects. CGI just sucks compared to the earlier modelling.

joe manning said...

The White Right is an aggregate of different groupings that disagree on goals but agree on white supremacy. The more traditional racists are nostalgic for the Antebellum South, while the Northwest Front types eschew institutional slavery lest it "pollute" their supposedly "Nordic" gene pool. You might call the one the Old Right and the other the New Right, though both wings are archaically obsolete.

Scalzi alludes to the libertarian theme that runs through the entire Right, which I would argue is cognate with white supremacy. This cleavage on the Right roughly parallels the small business/big business split that characterizes American capitalism and the crisis within small business ideology as described in C. Wright Mills' "White Collar."

The Old Right employs white supremacy in order to better exploit the labor of POC (as well as whites,) while the New Right uses it to as a rationale for "racial purity." The former advocates the restoration of Jim Crow (or slavery), the latter desires "race war" as personified by Dylann Roof.

balitwilight said...

I agree that this has little to do with Science Fiction. The "race" problem of Sci-Fi is just the endemic "race" problem of American culture.
On the other hand, speculative fiction by "White" nationalists is as much a cornerstone of their ideology as Das Kapital to militant Marxists or corrupted Koran interpretation to Islamic militants. As such, they are not an indication of weakness or retreat. They are a manifesto, seeded with a hide-in-plain-sight plan of action as Mein Kampf was. This should be understood and taken seriously.
The common thread in these narratives - from Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter", Timothy McVeigh's favourite "Turner Diaries and Harold Covington's "Northwest Front" series - is a plan for a "race" war. Harold Covington's series is - literally - a story/plan about white nationalists taking over, committing genocide against "non-whites", and establishing a "white nation" paradise. We call it speculative fiction, but it is a manifesto. It includes highly detailed tactical and violence-inspiring content. If it were written in Arabic and directed against the United States Covington would be in Guantanamo right now, or blown to pieces by a Hellfire.
Fiction like this is not a sign of weakness: it is a sign of commitment, malignancy and weapons-grade aggrieved entitlement. Its authors and readers are conspiring and stockpiling weapons as we speak. It needs to be understood that the one thing that will really motivate more young men like Dylan Roof is this kind of romantic, messianic "virgins-in-heaven" manifesto. And don't forget that there is a very high level of ex-US military recruitment in these organisations.

balitwilight said...

To use your terminology, a majority of the hardcore Old Right also advocate and are actively planning for "race" war. The Internet is full of Virginia-battle-flag-waving neo-Confederates who are stockpiling canned goods, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and 15-30 military-grade weapons per household - all in the self-fulfilling prophecy of a "race" war.

balitwilight said...

I think you'd find the same relative proportion of Mysteries, Thrillers, Detective Novels, Romantic novels vs Sci-Fi novels in any non-specialised bookshop in the United States or the UK.
Seeing that proportion in Ghanaian bookshops is more an indicator of cultural imperialism than of Ghanaian tastes.

Michael Varian Daly said...

He looks like a member of House Harkonnen.

Michael Varian Daly said...

There will *always* be a Section 31.

joe manning said...

The Old Right wishes to exploit black labor (and white labor) and therefore eschews race war choosing Jim Crow type domination. Its the New Right that threatens race war and regularly incubates the likes of Dylann Roof as the Old Right winks and nods. The two wings function symbiotically and aim to destroy civil society.

Scopedog said...

John, I have no issue with anyone who hated the Prequels (Lord knows I got an earful from friends who were gobsmacked that I thought they weren't that bad--I mean, there have been worse films!

But what you said about the original trilogy...yeah, that happened to me also. I still watch them, but as an adult I can see that they were nowhere near as good as I thought they were when I was a kid.

(On the other hand, one good thing came from the Prequels--the Republic Commando videogame, which was excellent.)

As for the Prequels and the CG backlash...what many are not aware of is that yes, the Prequels had quite a bit of CG--but there was a lot of practical model work as well, even more that the Original Trilogy. Shocking, I know, but...

j.ottopohl said...

No, US and UK bookstores have whole sections of Science Fiction. There is almost nothing in Ghana. The bookstores I am talking about are Ghanaian owned so Iam assuming they carry books they think will sell, not on "cultural and economic imperialism."

Passing Stranger said...

John Scalzi isn't the president of the SFWA and hasn't been for a year; Steven Gould is the president since 01JUL2014.

LadySmyth said...

Don't toss RAH. Be selective. He's the guy who gave us Podlayne and Friday, and the line marriage in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.