It isn’t a highway and it doesn’t have lanes

As long as there is class society in general and capitalism in particular there will be conflict between art and commercialism. How could their not be? In a society in which money is tied to fame and those two things combine into the official social measure of quality, any artist (in the broadest sense of the term) with a hint of self-awareness combined with the least shred of integrity has to, at some point, confront the issue.

While there are those who write to live, many of us live to write. Commercial success means less time doing a day job that perhaps we hate, and more time for our passion. To be sure, some of us—I include myself—have, simply because of luck, never had to face the choice between writing what satisfies us, and writing what will generate income. But for many, it can be a constant and difficult choice.

It is not my intention to the judge those who have to make that choice—I don’t feel entitled, as I have, so far, been lucky enough to escape it. But if you choose to chase the dollar rather than follow your passion, I do have a couple of requests: do not claim it as a virtue, and do not assume that, because wealth (and associated prestige and fame) is your primary—or only—consideration, that this must necessarily apply to all of your colleagues.

Here’s what I just came across on Twitter:

I see folks not really getting what a lot of black women mean when they say “stay in your lane” when it comes to books. So, thread.

First off, it’s up to you and whether or not you want to listen to WOC, specifically black women. They will live. Your career might not.

They’re not saying you can’t write diverse books with diverse characters. They’re saying not to steal someone’s story.

…It’s not an attack on white authors. It’s actually helpful advice.

More than likely, if you’re upset or confused at the “stay in your lane” idea, it’s probably because you’re assuming POC have an advantage.

*whispers* We don’t. White authors who write “diverse” stories get priority A LOT in publishing. *side eyes*

authors of color aren’t on the a level playing field with non-POC authors in publishing…yet. That’s just a fact.

We’re seeing more and more white authors use (and sometimes abuse) the call for diversity by taking OUR stories as POC.

Those opportunities should be given to POC directly. I mean, that’s the whole point. And it’s gonna take time.

So, white authors should sit back and allow POC to tell their own stories first. I mean, that’s kind of what allyship is.

Right off the bat, first one: “Your career may not.” A threat to the career. Because that’s what matters, right? One can only nod one’s head in respect to someone who doesn’t even pretend that quality of the work, that cognition of life, that even simple entertainment matters; career matters. Money and fame. That’s what this all about, first, last, and in the middle. In the struggle between art and commerce, at least here we have an emphatic position.

This brings up a question: are there writers, let us say white writers, who are cynically exploiting, in pursuit of wealth and prestige, the market’s wish for greater inclusion in characterization? There may be. I admit, the idea makes me throw up in my mouth a little, but it is possible; as long as there is capitalism there will be bottom-feeders. However, the above thread is not directed specifically at them; if it were, I’d have nothing to say. Or, at least, I’d have a great deal less to say. No, the thread is quite clearly directed at anyone who doesn’t “own” a given story but wants to tell that story.

Which immediately takes us to our next question: whence comes this notion of “owning” a story? Well, that, at least, is easy to answer: once we have accepted the total commercialization of art, it is just a small step to take classes of people: “women of color” “trans women” “gay men” and, abstracting from these people those characteristics and ignoring every other, commodify the abstraction and then claim ownership because those aspects you’ve abstracted apply to you. But be clear that it makes no sense outside of the context of the marketplace, of money, of career success. So then, if you are going to claim to “own” stories, you should also be aware that you are uncritically accepting the values handed us by capitalist culture; don’t do this and try to paint yourself as a rebel; it reeks of hypocrisy.

Ownership, property, is a relation among people—the right to use something, and to deny others the right to use it. In a period in which reactionaries are more and more placing property rights above human rights, and in which it is becoming more and more clear that the only way to secure human rights brings us into conflict with property rights, you want to extend property rights? To art? To the subject matter of art? Is there any possible way in which this can be considered progressive?

But even if we were to overlook that—which, to be clear, I am in no sense prepared to do—we then get to the question: just where does this ownership domain lie? The tweet speaks of women of color—a category that includes, among others, Michele Obama, an upper middle class academic at Stanford, the woman working next to a white guy at Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit, a high school girl in West Baltimore who, for fear of her life, looks over her shoulder for the police every time she goes outside, and a homeless woman dumpster diving in Oakland. The colossal arrogance of claiming ownership of all of the stories of all of these people because of cosmetic similarity is simply beyond the pale.

Consider the high school girl I mentioned above as the protagonist of a story.  What is her life experience?  How much off it has been shaped by conscious choice, and how much by social situation, and, above all, how aware is she of the latter?  As she leaves her home, where is she going?  What choices will she have to make, and how will she fare, and in what directions and to what degree will her thinking change, and would this change, in turn, have an effect on the broader society around her?  It should be obvious that, if any hundred writers were to consider those questions, it would result in a hundred (or more!) different stories.  And yet, you tell people that you “own” all of them?

But even that isn’t the most objectionable aspect of the whole thing. Have you noticed who is left out of this equation? A part of the complex publishing chain known as the reader.

If we do our jobs, if we confront all of the artistic challenges that face us in our efforts to tell stories, we just might, one hopes, reach someone. It can happen in a number of ways: by giving a reader a few hours of much needed distraction; by making a reader feel a connection to others like her- or himself; by making a reader feel a connection to and identity with others who are, to a greater or lesser degree, unlike her- or himself; by showing a reader something, perhaps even something important, about how life works, about how social forces and broad events are refracted through individual choices, and about how individual choices reflect themselves in broad social movements, thus coming to understand a little more the contradictions that surround us, but to which we are often oblivious.

This, it would seem, is unimportant to the author of the tweets above; it doesn’t deserve so much as a mention. The writer—in particular, the money, fame, prestige, and, no doubt, awards won by the writer—matters, but of the reader, nary a word.

Books are a commodity as they come off the presses, which is to say, they are interchangeable; I don’t care which copy of the same book I grab. Stories are not. No two writers will produce the same story; and for every good, honest story created with integrity (as well, certainly, as some number of poorly crafted or hacked out works) there are readers who will respond. If I choose not to write a story, there are some number of readers I could have touched who will be left without whatever I might have given them. There are, of course, many reasons why I might choose not to tell a certain story; not being excited by it is at the top of the list. But I find it appalling that some writers might choose not to tell stories that are important to them, and to their potential readers, for fear of offending someone who is interested in art for only the most base and philistine of reasons.

“Stay in your lane.” Just what does this mean? Must women write only of women? Must gay men write only of gay men? Because I am Jewish, must I only write about Jews? No, you will say, this only applies to writing about “marginalized groups” by those who aren’t in those groups. And yet, the logic here is that it can be unacceptable to write something because of aspects of one’s own personal identity. Are there those who think this can be anything but destructive to art? And, moreover, am I to judge someone else writing about Jews differently if the author is a Gentile? What a disgusting notion! How dare Shakespeare have written about a Jew! What nerve that Twain wrote about an African-American slave! How terrible that Mary Renault wrote based on Greek myths! Anyone who believes we would be living in a better world if the above-mentioned authors had refrained from such work is, let us just say, someone with whom I disagree.

There have been theories in the past, of course, that perfectly correspond to this: that see nationality or race as a fundamental determinate, and insist we cannot understand those unlike us. The only thing that makes this current version unique is that it comes from those who claim to be leftists; usually such notions form a part of racial theories that are the domain of the ultra-right. But no matter who makes this claim, it is not only profoundly untrue, it is deeply reactionary. To recognize the existence of racial and sexual oppression is to live in the real world. To surrender to categories of race and gender is to provide aid, comfort, and ammunition to the enemies of equality. As the reactionaries attempt to force their hateful programs on us, such divisions do nothing but make their job easier. Anything that makes these categories more rigid and permanent, also makes rigid and permanent the inequality and genocidal brutality of class society.

The task of fighting against a system as deeply embedded and powerful as capitalism requires above all unity of all of the oppressed; to prostrate one’s self before cosmetic differences—even if, especially if, those differences carry with them two-fold and three-fold oppression—means to accept the arguments used by our oppressors to divide us. I am not judging you if you do not take as a departure point for your art the need to work for the unity of the oppressed—in point of fact, that forms no deliberate part of my agenda as a novelist. But kindly refrain from making matters worse and claiming it as a virtue. The old saying goes, “Those who can’t skin must hold a leg while someone else does.” I say, “Those who can’t skin should at least stop kicking the skinners.”

I am leery of any statement that begins, “The point of art is…” But I will say that one very important point of art, and one of the tests of how successful a work of art is, is that it strips off layers of divisions and separation of time, of nation, of religion, of gender, even of class, and reveals to us the common elements that make us human. How else am I able to appreciate and enjoy the works of a Jane Austen whose writing is more than 100 years old, or a Goethe who was German, or a Dumas who was Catholic? This is not to suggest ignoring the peculiarities of a given culture or subculture at a particular time in a particular place—on the contrary, it is only by an honest and exhaustive examination of these peculiarities that we are able to reveal and celebrate the common elements. But pray explain to me how this goal is advanced by telling writers to “stay in their lane?” How is any goal advanced, beyond, perhaps, pushing some success counters in a particular direction, and convincing people that they can’t understand one another? The first goal is one that I don’t care about; the other I vehemently oppose.

While it appears to be a contradiction, it is nevertheless true that we, in science fiction, and even more in fantasy, are very much writing about the real world, the one we live in and experience every day, because the very freedom that lets our imaginations escape from reality requires above all that we are firmly anchored in today’s sensibilities, conflicts, priorities, notions of right and wrong, understanding of what is universal. And that these are all matters of dispute is exactly what gives us such wonderful variety, or, if I may be permitted to use the word, diversity in our stories. I beg to submit that one of our goals is, or ought to be, through imagination and speculation, to discover what is true and lay it before the reader. I further beg to submit that truth does not have a gender or racial bias, and that to say it does is to accept the arguments of the ultra-right.

“Your story” is the one you can’t help but write; it is the story that you want to read and so you have to write it because no one else has, will, or could. If it engages your passion, and you think it might also engage the passion of the reader, and perhaps even elevate or in some degree enlighten the reader, then you should write it. Telling your colleagues, “stay in your lane,” reflects disdain for other writers, scorn for the reader, and contempt for art.

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124 thoughts on “It isn’t a highway and it doesn’t have lanes”

  1. If we extend this “stay in your lane” idea to its logical conclusion, then it must follow that any story set in the modern city of New York, my home, could only be written by a committee of a few dozen authors.

    How I long to read this brilliant, if currently theoretical, novel! We all know the depth of nuance and fire of passion that comes from writing in consensus. Look at the timeless works produced by Budget Oversight Committees and School Planning Boards across the country.

    You can keep your Twains and your LeGuinns with their idiosyncrasies and their unique voices. Give me Novel #401,376,552 by Heterogeneous Working Group #338299!

  2. In the phrase in question, try replacing “lane” with “place.” I’m trying to see a functional difference between the two versions, but I haven’t managed yet.

    Last year at Fourth Street, the members of one panel agreed that the way white writers could be good allies was to be quiet and get out of the way of writers of color. I don’t know how to do my job, as a writer, and be quiet. They’re telling me the only way I can help is to stop writing.

    Am I in the way of writers of color? I don’t know. All the stories I tell are grounded in how I see the world, right or wrong. I try to see the world truly…but part of the experience of reading is knowing you’ll be seeing the world as the author believes it is, and weighing the story against your own perceptions. If I don’t write from what I see and believe, why would someone read one of my books instead of any of the million others?

    I know I sound defensive here, but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m just trying to figure out what I am, where I am. This doesn’t feel like privilege. It feels like having nowhere to stand that allows me to follow my calling.

  3. “Last year at Fourth Street, the members of one panel agreed that the way white writers could be good allies was to be quiet and get out of the way of writers of color.” Woah! That happened???? I can’t decide if I’m sorry or glad I wasn’t in the room at the time.

  4. You were on the smokers’ patio. I think from the program description it was clear you wanted to miss it.

  5. Sometimes I accidentally do something smart. Although there’s an argument to be made that I should, at least sometimes, engage with that sort of thing.

  6. I would like to apologize for getting in the way of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler.

    I do understand the white people who only write about white people, though I never did that and would never do that. I don’t see them getting called out by identitarians who want everyone to stay in their ghetto.

    I think it’s extremely significant that bourgeois black folks think they know more about the lives of the black working class than members of the white working class. Their belief that the oppressed know the oppressor better than the oppressors know themselves is debatable, but by that logic, they are entirely disqualified from writing about anyone outside their class.

  7. maybe instead of “ownership”, you might think about this as “inside knowledge”. white folks writing about black folks can come across as incredibly clueless, which is annoying and alienating to their black readers.

    in an example you mentioned: shakespeare’s jew, shylock, has been spat upon, insulted, and physically assaulted in the venetian stock market. at the climax of the play he is charged with attempted murder and threatened with the death penalty, then “mercifully” only made to give up half his wealth to his enemy and convert to christianity.

    this isn’t exactly the sort of story jews typically tell about jews. do you think that matters?

  8. “maybe instead of “ownership”, you might think about this as “inside knowledge”. white folks writing about black folks can come across as incredibly clueless, which is annoying and alienating to their black readers.”

    But at no time is the question brought up, “You’ll do it badly.” Indeed, in one of the conversations, in discussing white people who have spent their lives as teachers in poor black neighborhoods, that point is explicitly dismissed as not being what this is about. The question of, “Don’t write badly,” is significantly different from, “you don’t have the right to write about that.” It is presented simply as, “Let us tell our own stories.”

    As for the Shakespeare, do you think the world would be better if that play did not exist? I do not.

  9. vrc piper, Shakespeare had the freedom of writing in a time when no one expected a writer to research a subject. I doubt anyone here is arguing that we should just make up shit about people from other groups. Nor do I think the idea that people should do their research is terribly new.

    Do you think everyone should stay in their area of inside knowledge?

  10. skzb, allow me to say it clearly: i am bringing “you’ll do it badly” into this conversation.

    i think that a tremendous amount of anti-jewish stereotyping has been supported by that play. over the succeeding centuries, many people have seen it, and i think it has played significantly into the cultural narrative surrounding jews. i think this sucks. i also think that the world might indeed be significantly less anti-semitic were it not for shylock, and i don’t think that “the merchant of venice” is a treasure without which the world would suffer greatly. but i’m willing to differ from you on this (silly imho) counterfactual.

    will shetterly, i think that if black people found white people to be doing their research adequately, they wouldn’t be saying things like they do. i’ma shut up and listen to their opinions on how white people are actually visibly portraying them. i’m not going to address the general case you mention, because i think that’s avoiding the point.

  11. Will Shetterly, “I don’t see them getting called out by identitarians who want everyone to stay in their ghetto.” They do, though. The same people who say that people of color own their stories object to stories by white writers when the cast doesn’t include people of color. (And I think it’s a valid objection in most cases, since leaving black people off the spaceship seems more unrealistic to me than all the dilithium crystals and time travel in SF.)

    So even if all a writer wants is to satisfy the demands of identitarian critics, they can’t win.

  12. Do publishers know the race of most new writers? Or do they assume that if the protagonist is of a race (including culture), then the writer is of that race?

    I wonder what the assumption was with Ben Aaronovitch, with a Jewish name, but a black protagonist (Ben has a black son). Admittedly he’s an English writer.

  13. I knew someone who claimed that a book he read didn’t accurately represent “gay culture”. A friend of his educated him that it didn’t accurately represent my friend’s gay culture. It was hard for my friend to realize that his gay experience wasn’t universal. (He liked to tell this story though). Expand this to other sub cultures.

  14. vrc piper, I think you’re avoiding the heart of your argument. Either race and gender give people a particular insight and therefore everyone should stick to writing about their race and gender, or they do not, and humans should write about humans in all their glorious manifestations.

    Howard, publishing was the original field where no one knew if you wee a dog. I can’t remember who pointed out that we have no idea how many black writers or women wrote during the pulp era because all we know about some of those writers is a publisher mailed a check with that name on it.

  15. “skzb, allow me to say it clearly: i am bringing “you’ll do it badly” into this conversation.”

    Fair enough. It is a different conversation, but one I do not mind having. I think it’s pretty clear some writers are able to write movingly, powerfully, honestly, and convincingly of people utterly unlike them. Steinbeck was not an Okie, Twain was never a slave, Fitzgerald was not a wealthy socialite, Mary Renault was not a gay man during WWII, Richard Wright was not a poor white farmer, and so on. Is it a struggle to get it right? Absolutely. It’s hard. It takes a keen ear and a keen eye and empathy and imagination and the ability to find the right words to describe it all. But remember at the end of VP students are given permission to write badly? Telling writers they ought not to try is damaging to those writers, to the readers who would be moved by their work, and to art in general.

  16. will shetterly, i think you are reducing my argument ad absurdum. no i don’t believe all writing should be autobiographical. otoh i think that if a group of people actually come out and say “you’re writing about us all wrong”, they deserve listening to.

    skzb, same to you. you have no need of anyone’s permission to write anything you like. however, given the actual fact of black people saying “this is awful, please don’t do this to us” — do you care? or is your innate and inalienable ability to ignore them the path you choose instead? i don’t think “permission to write badly” means “it’s fine to write cruelly”. your interpretive mileage may vary.

    there are always exceptional writers whose ability to research and empathize transcend any boundaries — in sff i think geoff ryman’s use of cambodian culture presents a good example. if you can rise to that level, more power to you. if you can’t, though, i’d suggest you keep those writings to yourself rather than adding to the oppressive weight of your culture.

  17. vrc piper: Thank you, first of all, for taking the time to engage on this issue, and to take it seriously enough to make a thoughtful comment. Whatever our disagreement, we are, I think, in agreement that these are issues that matter and deserve serious attention.

    You say, “there are always exceptional writers whose ability to research and empathize transcend any boundaries — in sff i think geoff ryman’s use of cambodian culture presents a good example. if you can rise to that level, more power to you. if you can’t, though, i’d suggest you keep those writings to yourself rather than adding to the oppressive weight of your culture.”

    Who gets to decide if you’re good enough? Do you imagine there is any writer, ANY writer, without impostor syndrome? None of us believe we are good enough. But it is vital that we try. That we use all of our abilities to tell stories that will reach people, using those characters who mean something to us, who engage us, who cry out to us, “I have a story to tell!” You know very well what that feels like–when a character stands up in your head and shouts “Listen to me!”. Telling writers to ignore those voices is a crime against art.

    You speak of ‘black people saying “this is awful, please don’t do this to us”’ as if there were some sort of unified voice, as if these individuals had the right to speak for all. I hope they don’t believe that. What arrogance! When I speak of the objective needs of the working class, I still don’t make the claim that I am speaking FOR them! Moreover, who is speaking for the reader? Who is speaking for that person who needs the diversion, the enlightenment, the sense of self-worth, the deepend understanding that might come from a writer who has been shut down because she or he lacked the confidence to disregard those who say, “I own this story, you should not tell it.”

  18. vrc piper, which group of black people should I listen to, in your opinion? I’ve had a number of black people compliment me for my writing about black folks; I’m content to listen to them and not to the people who believe writers should stay in ghettos until they’ve been deemed exceptional by an authority you do not cite. This is a truth about art: we learn by trying and failing.

  19. skzb: emma bull mentioned fourth street programming “it was clear you wanted to miss” — perhaps you should not miss it, but show up and listen. it may not be a “unified voice” (does any exist?), but they are certainly actual people’s actual voices. imagine they deserve to be heard.

    will shetterly: attending only to one’s sycophants and never to one’s critics doesn’t provide much opportunity to learn from one’s failures.

  20. It’s important to listen to criticism. But we all have our own internal guidelines on the value of criticism depending on the person who is giving it.

    Literary fiction (my genre) is saturated with middle-class elements. I would hazard a guess (I’m perfectly willing to be proven wrong) that those who advise writers to “stay in their lane” are among the comfortable and complacent middle-class. And indeed, they do stay in their lane, and the work they produce, no matter how skilled they are in form, is rather empty in terms of content. As Steven has already pointed out, the middle-class have produced beautiful works of fiction that grapple with the major issues of their historical moment; these writers didn’t stay in their lane. Staying in one’s lane is wont to produce work that may sell, but the reader will learn very little from it. One of the great joys of being a writer is the ability to step into another human beings shoes, and sometimes those shoes are much different from the ones you wear on a regular basis. When I write fiction, I want to understand something that I didn’t understand before. I want to take it seriously. I want to have fun. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in those last two criteria.

    My “lane” is blue-collar drudgery. I’m 37 and I’ve been traveling this lane for 22 years at breakneck speed; this lane doesn’t end. I want to write about it. But I reserve the right to make my characters human beings in all our infinite diversity.

  21. People should feel free to write about whatever they want to write about. It would be great if everyone did this well, but that isn’t so. There is a lot of writing out there that is really bad. However, bad writing is pretty easy to avoid–when you get to something you don’t like you can just stop if you want.

    Here’s an example. In the book Reamde by Neal Stephenson, the first chapter starts with a family reunion in Iowa. They discuss various things and mention the “crick”. This threw me out of the story as creek is not typically pronounced crick in Iowa. He later mentions the family migrated to that part of Iowa from Missouri and that could explain the linguistic choice. Now, 99.9% of the readers of the book would never notice that particular little detail but it has stuck with me enough to recall it as irritating 6 years later. I went ahead and finished the book but that choice made it a different book for me than for most other people. Everyone makes choices when writing that may ring untrue for a particular reader–even when the detail may be grounded in fact. You make the best choices you can and send the writing out.

    The particular assertion that the twitter quote is making, that white writers who write about POC crowding out POC writers is one that I would need to see some sort of figures on. It doesn’t sound very credible as a general rule from what I’ve seen of the publishing world. Publishers exist to make money and will generally publish anything they think will make them that money. Often they are mistaken in both directions; rejecting things that someone else picks up that does fine or publishing things that flop. There are certainly editors out there who are racist but there are certainly many who are not. It may very well be that the twitter writer had a bad experience with publishing that reflected that problem of being crowded out. That’s very unfortunate (reprehensible of the editor if the choice was actually based on race). If it was a case where the non-POC writer wrote a better POC story than the POC writer and the better story was picked, I wouldn’t call that crowding out. There are lots of possibilities that could have spurred the tweet. They range from reprehensible on the case of the editor to wild speculation on the case of the tweeter.

    Should any of that stop anyone from writing? No. Write what you want. Each reader will ultimately judge whether you are successful for themselves.

  22. “attending only to one’s sycophants and never to one’s critics doesn’t provide much opportunity to learn from one’s failures.”

    vrc piper, that’s a nice line, but I must note that a believer in any cult would offer it. The problem is we have opposing views, one offered by universalists, one offered by identitarians. They cannot be reconciled. Either we agree to stay in our lanes, or we say there are no lanes. I’m always struck by the way identitarians agree with something I grew up believing, that race and gender are social constructs, yet they insist we all adhere to those constructs. They seem to want an idealized version of something that’s impossible, a world where the races and genders are separate but equal. History tells us you must choose one.

    You are, of course, free to stay in what you see as your lane. If that’s your choice, I only ask that your lane acknowledges class, and you stay in that too.

    I must also say I’m sorry you live in a world that’s divided between critics and sycophants. I live in one in with people who like my work and people who don’t. It’s more inclusive than your world, and more egalitarian, and generally more pleasant, I suspect. But then, what pleases me may not be what pleases you—you seem to want sycophants while I only want equals who appreciate my efforts.

  23. Jack Sparrow: Take what ye can!
    Mr. Gibbs: Give nothin’ back!

    There are people who will try to take whatever they can.

    If they meet up with liberals who are apologetic for having anything, what would you expect to happen?

    The theory is that white males in particular deserve nothing. Other people are oppressed but white males are not oppressed. Everyone around them constantly caters to them, because they are the oppressors and not the oppressed. Therefore they do not know what it is to be oppressed; they are clueless. Other people can have a clue. A white woman can have some inkling what it means to be a victim, because white men victimize her. A rich black man occasionally is treated as if he is black. Etc. But white men are always clueless and do not deserve any consideration of any sort.

    White males only understand the oppressors’ point of view. Everybody else also understands the oppressors’ point of view because they must deal with it every day. They must be crafty in subverting it, in fooling it, in sneaking past it. They could die if they ever misunderstand. White males do not understand themselves as well as everybody else in the world understands them.

    In the world of victim-sizing, white males are at the bottom of the heap. But nobody can depend on staying on top. “I thought I was underprivileged because I had no shoes, until I got upstaged by a woman who had no feet.” A black woman can be upstaged by a black woman who overcame being a ghetto whore with a heroin habit and a prison record. Who can be upstaged by a Gullah woman. Who can be upstaged by a real african from Mali with tribal scars, whose family was killed by muslims. Etc.

    Why should a white man write? He doesn’t understand anybody else and everybody else understands him better than he understands himself. Well, but he might have a special niche. A Jewish white man can write about the Holocaust etc. A Hungarian white man whose father was an immigrant has a right to write. Men who have suffered for being communists can write. White men who have been persecuted for autism spectrum disorder can write provided they display great empathy and pathos.

    Does any of this actually affect the publishing industry? I don’t know. Probably. Sometimes. Particularly if it looks like it will sell. They don’t just sell books, they must also sell authors. An author with a special ethnic cachet is like a brand of dolphin-safe tuna. It’s one more little bit of advertising that might help sell the brand.

    Is it worth engaging with this sort of identitarian, who will claim they are the authorities who decide whether your credentials are good enough? I guess it depends. What do you want? Are they threatening your audience? Do you have a lot of readers who might boycott your books unless you prostrate yourself before them? Then prostrate yourself.

    Can they get you attention? Maybe you would do well to wittily antagonize them, and more people might check out your work because of the controversy.

    Maybe they will not affect your livelihood but you’re bored? Then do as you will is the whole of the schtick.

    Or you are like them, and you want what they have?

    Then take what ye can!
    Give nothing back!

  24. I always have a split vision on these kinds of debates. On the one hand, within the liberal blogosphere and similar places, people who take privilege theory seriously are relatively vocal and influential. So it seems important to confront positions which seem illogical or overly deterministic, to name but a few issues.

    On the other hand, in the larger world, people of color are so marginalized that it seems petty to debate the minutiae of theory. In the wider market they have just about no influence and a lot of the influence they do have is dependent on the good will of well meaning, but mostly clueless white people.

    How you navigate these two simultaneous realities is a matter of conscience, but I suggest one bring a sensitive and open viewpoint, regardless of what you ultimately choose to say or write.

    Someone above made a point about “separate but equal.” I have often thought that myself: if you preserve race, then you preserve racism. It may have better or worse consequences at any given time, but it will still exist. Now as a practical matter, African Americans have absolutely no chance to end racism tomorrow; so it is a bit much to ask them to think in terms of “universalism.” But it is still fair to ask if current struggles against racism have the elimination of racism as a long term goal. Because ending racism means ending race and racial identity. Current identity politics has no such horizon, however distant, as far as I can see.

    Flipping this around, I think socialists should see the struggle to dismantle racism as a necessary and urgent precursor to successful revolution and not as a beneficial by-product of the process.

  25. ” I think socialists should see the struggle to dismantle racism as a necessary and urgent precursor to successful revolution and not as a beneficial by-product of the process.”

    I don’t think either one. I think the struggle against racism is part of building socialist consciousness, and the fight against racial oppression must be a part of the fight against capitalism. The danger comes from those who would subordinate the fight for class unity to a middle-class utopian view of fighting racism while not challenging capitalism.

  26. vrc piper, “…attending only to one’s sycophants and never to one’s critics doesn’t provide much opportunity to learn from one’s failures.” In one of my books, I included a person of color who I worked very specifically to make NOT a Magical Negro. A critic of color objected to the character as a Magical Negro…changing the definition to match the character. What should I take away from this criticism?

  27. “Because ending racism means ending race and racial identity. Current identity politics has no such horizon, however distant, as far as I can see.”

    I think you’re right, we end racism by ending race.

    That means ending whites. The more intermarriage, the less important it will be. It’s happening faster each year.

    30 years ago the US population was about 3% Jewish. Now it’s more like 2.4%, and a fair fraction of that is decidedly mixed. Racism by Jews against everybody else keeps getting less important.

    We aren’t that low with “whites” but it’s coming. Not real long before we get a hispanic majority. That’s part of what Trump is trying to do, his supporters hope he can delay that. I doubt he can delay it much.

    Mixing reduces a lot of problems. If one of my great-grandfathers on my father’s side cheated one of my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side, what does it mean to me? I don’t necessarily need to take sides.

    In the long run there are some genetic problems that are likely to come out from too much mixing. Not of races, we need to be split into groups of maybe 10,000 or so people with strictly limited transfer among them. Maybe we’ll learn enough genetics to find other ways to handle it. It’s a long run problem anyway.

  28. jethomas5, could you expand on that last paragraph? Or link to a discussion of the issue? On the surface, it seems like an odd claim to me.

  29. “That means ending whites.” Might want to temper your rhetoric a wee bit there, bizarro Francis Galton.

    Racism ends when all people are treated as individuals, not assigned to groups they had no say in joining, so… basically the opposite of identity politics. Fighting racism with more racism is the raison d’être of the whole movement – ending that will be much easier than implementing whatever fever-dreamt Mendelian program you are suggesting and hoping it solves all our problems.

  30. “I think the struggle against racism is part of building socialist consciousness, and the fight against racial oppression must be a part of the fight against capitalism.”

    This is why anyone who has studied the history of the struggle against racism knows that socialists have always been at the front. There’s a reason the Communist Party defended the Scottsboro Boys, and King and Rustin were democratic socialists. For socialists, equality is unqualified. Only capitalists want a hierarchy that racism serves.

  31. will shetterly, i think you’ve stopped reading what i write — i never said a thing about staying in one’s lane, only about listening to one’s critics. so: clearly you’re not listening to me. so i’ma stop addressing you. have a nice day.

    emma bull, it sounds like you have engaged with your critic to the point of hearing their criticism and disagreeing with it. but you did *hear* and *think about* and *attempt to address* the thing they were bothered by, and i think that’s about what one can and should do. so i think that’s totally valid; you don’t have to agree with them — you could be right and they could be wrong. c’est la vie.

  32. vrc piper, you seem to think representation of different races and genders is a new concern. It is not. I’m 61, and it was an issue when I began paying attention to these things in college. The feministsf wiki said my “work features strong women characters and people of color”. That did not happen by accident.

  33. vrc piper, it is true you never used the lane metaphor, but you seemed to be defending it when you spoke of inside knowledge and suggested Steve should “show up and listen”.

    I agree that there is inside knowledge. It is the knowledge of the human heart. Writers who understand that can write about anyone. Writers who do not cannot make their own race, gender, or class convincing.

  34. My biggest problem with the whole mess is someone deciding that a persons race or religion is their main characteristic. If I write about a character that is compelling and believable maybe even sympathetic and happens to be African American, is the fact that the character is African American automatically the important part of the character? Why not focus on the character’s job (all cops are that way) or if their married (you know what that is like) or sexual orientation (pick your stereotype)? Why can’t a character be a black gay cop just because he happens to be a black man who works as a cop and is gay? Why do ANY of these arbitrary things have to be more compelling than any other aspect?

    Just because I am a single white male doesn’t mean I only care about or want to know about or want to read about things that are particular to being single white and male.

    If I write about a person’s experiences and that person is African American am I automatically writing about an African American experience? Why?

  35. “My biggest problem with the whole mess is someone deciding that a persons race or religion is their main characteristic.” Yeah.

  36. @Alexx Kay I’m having trouble finding papers about this that aren’t behind paywalls.
    Here is a stub.

    The general idea is that various genetic mechanisms can result in some alleles getting represented at more than 50% in the next generations — sometimes around 100%. These genes will tend to spread through the population quickly, even if they affect survival badly when homozygous.

    The classic example was a mouse gene which was passed to almost all offspring when heterozygous, but which was lethal when homozygous.

    Here’s another stub.

    A population can have other genes which defend against that one, but they do not get selected until that gene is present in high concentration. So in a large population, first the gene spreads quickly and silently through the population, and then the population mostly dies off.

    When the population is divided into many small populations with limited interaction, genes like this will sometimes get into a new small population before they drive an old small population extinct, but they won’t drive all the small populations extinct at once. Also, genes that work against them are likely to also spread with them and get selected early.

    Here is an abstract of a recent review which I have not read myself because of the paywall.

  37. @Nathan S “Racism ends when all people are treated as individuals, not assigned to groups they had no say in joining, so… basically the opposite of identity politics.”

    That sounds good to me.

    People assign other people to groups for a lot of reasons, often associated with economic advantage. Class theory involves assigning people to groups. When we treat people as part of the bourgeoisie we assign them to a group, though they could get out of the group by donating all their wealth to charity etc.

    Racism involves assigning people to groups based on ancestry. People imagine that they know distant ancestry based on physical appearance and culture and recent ancestry, and they run with it. If the time comes that the population is so mixed that recent ancestry usually shares many supposed “racial” groups, then racism will not be plausible.

    When most people know that they have at least one grandparent who was partly black, and at least one grandparent who was partly hispanic, it will be hard for them to be racist against blacks and hispanics. They will have to assign other people to groups based on something else. Perhaps class. Perhaps ethnicity.

    Maybe people who share a particular philosophy will get hard-to-remove tattoos that will show everyone they are members, and they can assign people to the group of non-members by the lack of tattoo. We can become star-belly sneetchs.

  38. @Alexx Kay

    I wrote a reply about meiotic drive, but it didn’t go through. Maybe because it had 3 links.

  39. Well, I googled that term, so I’ve learned something new today, thanks!

    The phenomenon seems to me sufficiently poorly understood so far that making large-scale long-term decisions based upon it would be premature.

  40. @Alexx Kay

    I hope that it’s something that is happening slowly enough that we don’t have to make large-scale long-term decisions about it.

    With luck our understanding of genetic engineering will increase fast enough that we can find solutions that we can hardly imagine now.

    It’s pretty well understood what’s going on in some cases. They understand some of the specific genetic mechanisms. (And those mechanisms have a great big variety. Anything that can kill off a specific half of the sperm, or a specific half of the eggs, or that can increase a gene’s chance of winding up in the egg instead of a polar body, etc can have this effect. (I’ve seen a theory that polar bodies evolved to palliate a meiotic drive version that wasn’t adapted to it. I don’t know how that could be tested.)

    It’s documented to kill off small populations of field mice — the mice are divided into lots of small populations with limited interchange, exactly the pattern which is known to keep it from driving the whole species extinct.

    Enterprising researchers are getting funding to introduce such genes into pest populations they hope to drive extinct. We’ll see how well it works.

    We know there are genes like this in humans. So history should have shown its effects. We should have a pattern all over where villagers tend to marry people who live within half a mile of them, while people in cities marry whoever and then suffer fertility problems — cities would tend to be population sinks. That’s true, but there are many other known reasons for it — pollution, poor sanitation, bad food, etc.

    I would predict that big empires with armies would tend to mix up the genetics. They’d allow increased transportation and trade, move slaves all over, and then they’d suffer a population collapse which would lead to an empire collapse. And I don’t much see that in history. Maybe the empires don’t last long enough for it to happen. Maybe it’s been slow enough that it doesn’t get documented. If a big subset of the population dies out over generations and gets replaced by new people from the countryside, would people even remark on it?

    So history doesn’t particularly support it, but I don’t think history rules it out.

  41. Interesting, definitely worth researching. I still maintain it’s way too early to be designing policy around at this time. If the research starts consistently showing an acute danger, or a better-understood long-term one, that could change.

  42. I agree it’s too early to design policy around.

    Again, our technology is changing fast. We might develop a technological fix before it becomes a big problem.

    If we lose our hi-tech stuff but keep a functioning transportation system, or even if we keep a knowledge base, we need to pass along knowledge of the problem and whatever low-tech solutions are known at that time.

    It’s hard for me to imagine enforcing a solution at this point, even if it is an acute problem. Tell women each of them have to limit who they get pregnant by to a group of 5000 males.

    Watch the Libertarian reaction.

  43. Something not mentioned is whether this ‘stay in your own lane’ stuff is damaging to the Black and other minority writers. One of the great tragic stories I was told as a child, concerned an Innuit artist, painter and skulptor, brilliant, who at age 16 or so was discovered by a bourgeois French Canadian gives-grants-and-fellowships-and-such foundation. They asked him what he wanted out of life, and how they could help him as an artist — and he surprised them mightily when he said ‘ 5 year scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in France, merci’. Well, he spoke French, and could definitely make the art, so it took some doing but off he went.

    And I gather seeing the Impressionists and Pontilists in particular, expanded his mind in great ways. He stopped painting in the traditionjal, 0-dimentional flat style of traditional Innuit painting, and produced wolves, walruses, terns, polar bears — all done in an incredibly realistic style, though in colours never seen in nature, and, ah all painted as dots and streaks and never a strong line in the lot.

    I have seen a wolf picture made that way. Small, it fit in the palm of my hand. All Lilac and purple tones, and one of the most frightening pictures I have ever seen. To look at it makes you somewhat sick to your stomach. It’s more real than even photographs. It does ‘spirit of wolf’ better than anything I have ever experienced and the spirit is not a peaceful or tame one. It is beautiful, and terrible all at one. And oh, oh so skilfully done.

    So, at any rate, after his study-stipend ran out, this guy went home and started making such things and teaching what he had learned to other artists until, somehow, the people who sponsored him were able to put a stop to this nonsense. ‘Innuit Art’ was a marketable commodity, and it was not going to become corrupted by this horrible outside influence. Go back to making what we can sell. The flat stuff!

    According to the person who told the story to my father, the young artist knuckled under, and gave up making art altogether, even the carvings that were not objected to.

    While I perfectly well agree that it is damaging to tell artists that they should, not so much ‘stay in their own lane’ but ‘stay out of mine’ unless they have identity politics credentials that give them the pass-keys, I fear that the worst damage may be being done to young artists who have those credentials — but who do not want to turn themselves into a commodity, and want to write outside of lanes, altogether.

  44. jethomas:In this paper there is a good study of some of the affects of meiotic drive on some human populations.
    In particular, the time-frame of allele fixation in this section:

    “The strength of meiotic drive at the population level is governed by the NCO frequency at the driven SNP as well as the degree of TD. At hotspot F, SNP F6.1 converts at an average frequency of 0.08% per sperm and displays TD to a degree of 71:29 in favour of the G-allele. Together these will give gametic ratios in heterozygotes of 50.0167:49.9833. Although this ratio is very close to 50:50, population simulations show that this meiotic drive does have an effect, increasing the likelihood of eventual fixation of the driven G-allele from 14% (its current population frequency in Europeans) to 85% and with fixation occurring somewhat faster than for a non-driven allele (in ~300,000 years, about 40% of the time required for fixation of the G-allele in absence of meiotic drive). Similarly at hotspot K, drive at marker K7.4 is determined by a NCO frequency of 0.16% and a ratio of 68:32 in favour of the C-allele, a strength that virtually guarantees eventual fixation of the C-allele, increasing from 73% without drive to >99.8% with drive, and with fixation occurring in only ~95,000 years, about 24% of the time required in the absence of meiotic drive.”

    of 95,000 to 300,000 years would seem to give plenty of room for us to either solve the problem via genetic manipulation or kill ourselves off in a much shorter period of time.

  45. In case there was any confusion: I consider “race” to mainly be a socially constructed category, not a biological fact. Calling something a socially constructed narrative is not to disparage it: nations/nationalism are socially constructed categories, but no one would claim they are any less powerful or influential for that.

    So while more interracial marriages will probably be a factor, I was mostly thinking about dismantling or diminishing race as a significant attribute of identity. Race might be helpful in identifying things like predispositions to medical problems, but my guess is that genetic science will only get more specific on that front. So your “race” as defined by some nutjob social theorist from the last few hundred years will not be as helpful as the specific genotype they print out from your most recent medical examination.

  46. Obligatory quibble: There’s a crucial difference between the historically recent concept of race and ancient concepts of tribe like nationality: you can change your tribe, but you can’t change your race. This is why people think of it as more meaningful than nationality when it’s actually less.

  47. Steve, that’s a rather weak meiotic drive, and the ones observed in nature tend to be much larger — since of course to be observed they need to have a dramatic effect.

    Also, other things equal it takes about twice as long to take over a population of 1 million than a population of 1 thousand, and twice as long to take over a population of 100 million than a population of 10 thousand. So by the time we notice a fast one happening, it will probably already be too late to do anything about it without advanced genetic engineering.

    But when we don’t have what it takes to do much about global climate change, we sure aren’t going to take extreme measures about this one — when at this point the danger is entirely theoretical.

  48. @Privateiron “In case there was any confusion: I consider “race” to mainly be a socially constructed category, not a biological fact.”

    Yes, certainly.

    “I was mostly thinking about dismantling or diminishing race as a significant attribute of identity.”

    You are thinking about dismantling significant aspects of other people’s cultures.

    This is not a trivial thing to do.

    Like, I am not Jewish (though my sister is). If I were to propose a plan to change Jewish culture so that Jewish people did not feel persecuted, how would they feel about that proposal on average?

    I am not a Marxist. How would Marxists feel if I proposed to change Marxist culture to de-emphasize class? In the new Marxism, there are no economic classes, everybody is an individual!

    It is not easy to change cultures. Particularly other people’s cultures.

  49. Okay. So when it comes to appropriation and things which are probably not appropriation but get condemned under the umbrella of it, I think there’s a spectrum which is pretty clear (which is not to say that every work clearly falls on one portion of the spectrum, since stories have multiple characters, authors research multiple subjects, characters have both race AND gender at the same time!!!, etc.).

    On the one end you have, say, Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden. Golden interviewed Mineko Iwasaki (who later wrote Geisha: A Life) under conditions of confidentiality. He then broke that confidentiality, falsified portions of the story, intensified the parts that reinforced racial stereotyping, published the book, sold the movie rights (in an (arguably unflattering) movie about japanese culture, primarily Chinese actors were cast), and had a smash hit. Mineko’s commercial success was much less, and for breaking the geisha code of silence she was targeted with death threats.

    This is a clear, unambiguous example of basically everything wrong that one can do with appropriation.

    Also on that end: white artists who invent notions of Native American art and dress, or take those notions from Native religion, and then make money off of them, often in direct competition with Native artists who have fewer business connections, have a harder time getting start-up loans, etc.

    Then the grey area: to what extent can a culture claim to own a story? Aboriginal & Native American artists and community elders have often expressed a broad consensus that they prefer other cultures not re-tell their stories. However, when creating their own art and telling their own stories, they have often been economically exploited – Australian Aboriginal artists worked in sweat shops once genuine Aboriginal art became a popular phenomenon. In these specific cases, at least, while I do not concede that story is anything but the collective inheritance of all humanity, I still recognize that in the face of this general (but obviously not universal) consensus, and given the ongoing horrific treatment of Native people by the American government, I’m not going to be the asshole who shoulders in and asserts my right to tell those tales. I have a perfect right to do a lot of things I’d be an ass for doing.

    On the other end: many writers who research, consult, study, and live in multicultural environments, who write about the world they see around them, who recognize and engage with criticism, who try harder and fail better. My list of just who those artists are won’t be the same as anyone else’s. As a (queer, mentally ill, past history of homelessness and food insecurity) white guy, some of my experience prepares me to make good judgment on such a list, some doesn’t.

    All art is collaborative. Where we once said “Mediocre artists borrow. Great artists steal.” we might say that there’s an obligation to be Robin Hood. To not make art *at the expense of* any community, but *in conversation with* it, and give back to it. How many times have I discovered good artists of diverse backgrounds only because an artist who looks more like me dropped a note in the back of a book? 3 Mustaphas 3 have made money off me they wouldn’t have made if it weren’t for, unless I misremember, the endnotes of Bone Dance.

    We can all work to make art that enriches both ourselves and those we right about, and write for, and do our best to break down the barriers that depict art as a zero sum game where if someone wins, somebody else loses by it. The more money I spend on art, the more I want EVEN MORE ART. The rate I fill bookshelves has only ever accelerated.

  50. (Oops. Then I looked up the lineup of 3 Mustaphas… white english dudes. Well. the point stands, even if the example falls flat. John Scalzi recced Saladin Ahmed; I know I heard of Walter Mosley in the back of a white author’s private eye novel, Tempest Bradford & Nnedi Okafor & Tobias Buckell were also recced to me by white authors, etc.)

  51. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, doylist. There is much I agree with, some I disagree with. What I’ll say for now is to point to your example of 3 Mustaphas 3. Yes, they’re three white English dudes—who have contributed significantly, in my opinion, to the spread of North African and Baltic music, and, even more, have made the world a better place by using their exceptional skill and following their passion. I have no doubt whatsoever that there are those who would condemn them; I think their work enriches everyone, and that is the most significant point.

  52. Jethomas5:I would argue that class is not an aspect of Marxist culture but rather an observation about an aspect of other economic systems–most notably Capitalism. Saying class is an aspect of Marxist culture is like saying gravity is an aspect of physicists culture.

  53. Jethomas5: It is very possible that most people prefer having racism to losing large aspects of their identity. However, if you want a major change, you are going to have major disruption.

    Obviously, I am not personally asking anyone to do that. I am stating one of the costs of having the future most people say they want. I would probably give up a lot to end racism. But I would not give up any of my own cultural heritage unless I was sure the process was actually going to work. It would require a large majority of the population to more or less simultaneously agree to that bargain.

    And outside of theoretical discussions, we are talking about a process of decades here. I am posing it as a hypothetical limit test: would one be comfortable if this was the end result? Not here is the amazing action plan: everyone give up your race on 3.

    I am not convinced current identity politics have a long term view. I see them more as tactics, which work to a limited extent in our very specific culture, being elevated above their utility value and applied in too many contexts.

    It’s probably an empirical question, to be determined as events develop, how much distinct identity has to be shed to make this work. I am guessing making pierogis is fine. Claiming a special heritage/function as freedom fighters is probably not. Za nasza i wasza wolnosc. Of course, if you all voluntarily chose to became Dzur..I mean Polish, we could adapt that as everyone’s motto and call it a day.

  54. I am pretty much fine with anyone having/adopting/choosing any culture they want to have whether consciously chosen or randomly fallen into.

  55. doylist, I read about this long ago and don’t know how to find it again, so I will have to be vaguer than I would like:

    A tribe in North America lost words from its language in the last century, then regained them because Germans who loved American Indian culture had preserved them. This is a case of “cultural appropriation” helping to save the original culture.

    If you’re not familiar with Germany’s obsession with American Indians:

    I think my greatest problem with “cultural appropriation” is it assumes cultures are fixed rather than living.

  56. My problem is its use as an umbrella term for both the “Memoirs” phenomenon and the thing you describe here. I would feel much better if we called one appropriation and the other, I dunno, diaspora?

  57. Steve: “Saying class is an aspect of Marxist culture is like saying gravity is an aspect of physicists culture.” I just have to quote that so I can admire it.

  58. Grävling: That was an aspect I hadn’t considered. Chilling. Thanks for bringing it up. (And sorry about the delay in posting; my software decided it was spam and I had to rescue it).

  59. @Steve Halter “I would argue that class is not an aspect of Marxist culture but rather an observation about an aspect of other economic systems–most notably Capitalism. Saying class is an aspect of Marxist culture is like saying gravity is an aspect of physicists culture.”

    And that’s true of race too.

    Ancestry is real. It leaves a rubble-pile of ambiguous evidence behind that can be detected with genetic tests.

    On a larger scale, we can tell humanity’s relation to other species by genetic similarity, that’s ancestry again on a larger scale.

    Concepts of race *are* concepts of ancestry. There’s a question what meaning to give it. You can choose to say that genetically everybody’s all almost identical and so it doesn’t matter in the least. Further, what differences there are have no functional significance, everybody has basicly the same brain just like we all have basicly the same bones and the same muscles and the same skin.

    Or you could choose to say that we are each individuals and it’s silly to try to organize us into groups.

    These are possible choices about what ancestry means — ways to argue that it means nothing.

    Without science, we can’t track ancestry very far. It’s mostly assumption. But without a whole lot of data, physicists can’t track gravity very far either. Long ago some physicists made a philosophical assumption that somebody who knew the locations and velocities of every bit of mass in the universe, who could do all his calculations with infinite precision, could correctly predict all of the future. Because there was nothing but atoms colliding, and gravity. This was, of course, assumption. In practice physicists had trouble solving the three body problem.

    Gravity is a unifying principle. By assuming it is always going on the same way, and interpreting the world in those terms, we can predict what else must have happened to give us particular outcomes.

    Similarly, class is a unifying principle. Without understanding the details of particular human interactions, we can assume that capitalists will behave predictably and interpret what happens in terms of those predictions.

    And ancestry is another unifying principle. I don’t see useful predictions from it, but apparently some people get meanings from it that comfort them.

  60. “apparently some people get meanings from it that comfort them.” Granfalloon.

  61. @Privateiron

    “I am not convinced current identity politics have a long term view. I see them more as tactics, which work to a limited extent in our very specific culture, being elevated above their utility value and applied in too many contexts.”

    I firmly agree.

    “It’s probably an empirical question, to be determined as events develop, how much distinct identity has to be shed to make this work. I am guessing making pierogis is fine. Claiming a special heritage/function as freedom fighters is probably not.”

    From my point of view, there is a mass culture which mines whatever it can find for novelty.

    It takes pierogis and turns them into a frozen commodity with simple heating instructions. Then when that fad has run its course maybe they become unavailable and it turns samosas into a frozen commodity with simple heating instructions, and so on.

    People who are too much affected by mass culture tend to lose whatever traditions they may have had. How do your family recipe pierogis compare to the version everybody has eaten? How important is the difference?

    When I was growing up a lot of the kids (and adults) around me had a special central-Virginia accent that I mostly can’t hear. There’s a distinct southern-Virginia accent that I find special, and particularly sexy. Sometime later, it seemed like a lot of southern kids were losing their accents around the time they were in primary school, and then some of them carefully learned a new generic southern accent from TV.

    Mass culture tells people how they ought to behave with sitcoms and reality-TV and so on. It provides a variety of role models, but they are a limited variety which makes sense in a particular context.

    I’m not at all clear what it means. I can understand people who feel they have a special cultural identity wanting their cultures not to be subject to that treatment.

    Also, I can understand individual people who have special cultural traditions, who believe that they personally have a right to mine their own cultures for profit, and that people who lack their credentials should not be allowed to poach on their territory.

    TV was a tremendous centralizing force. The internet looks more centrifugal. I don’t know where that will lead either.

  62. skzb:Cool.

    jethomas5:Yes, the trick is picking the differentiators from which some predictions can be made. Gravity allows for many useful predictions. Race, not so much.

    Will:I saw that same article somewhere about Germans liking Indian culture very much.

  63. Steve, predicting the future is not the only purpose for organizing principles. A major purpose is to create meanings.

    People want a sense of who they are, where they fit in, and why it’s important. Science tends to be deficient in that. It gives us a picture of an enormously complicated world which we can never understand, where there are organizing principles we can come up with which tend to imply that everything could somehow be explained if only we knew enough — except we don’t. A world with no intrinsic meanings.

    The values are only those of the scientist — observe carefully and impartially, look for organizing principles, be honest and creative in the search, die with the respect of your fellow scientists. Because curiosity. These are values imposed on the world, they don’t come from the world.

    People often accept other views of the world not for their predictive value but for their explanatory value. Views that tell them who they are and why it matters. Christianity. Social darwinism. Socialism. Scientology. Because satisfying stories are often more important to people than correct predictions.

  64. As a writer from Greece, the one thing that would be truly insulting would be for anyone to try and lessen Mary Renault’s breathtaking works, or to suggest other writers should somehow be prevented from writing about Greece because Greeks are oppressed and exploited and scapegoated. This kind of segregationist thinking is the enemy of everything I hold dear.

    Nobody helps me, as a non-American/non-English writer working in the English language, by “staying out of my lane.” By definition, no other writer is me, and the only thing I have to offer – and the only basis I wish to be judged upon – is my particular works of art, which no-one else can produce.

    However, those who insist on promoting deeply reactionary concepts of authenticity *are* actually actively harming me. They are:
    1) forcing writers to play up their authentic identities to be noticed
    2) making it much harder to write about themes that aren’t assigned to that identity
    3) making it harder to be judged on merit
    4) making it easy for various nationalists to take centre stage

    I’ve spent the last few years writing a very complicated book that’s inspired, in many ways, by Lord Dunsany (and Marx). I’m sure it’ll be a hard sell. I have another book I want to write that is strongly inspired by the history of Thessaloniki, where I grew up. I know that one will be a much easier sell. I know my short stories would be easier to sell if I intentionally played up my ethnic origin (maybe with some nice magical realism?). And I do actually have stories that draw on Greek culture. But the reason I’ve actively avoided writing any of this stuff is because I do not want to be A Greek Writer, just like I don’t want to be A Greek Game Developer, even though I’ve made one game that draws on recent Greek history.

    I am a writer. Just a regular human writer, and that’s all I want to be.

  65. Jethomas5:I find science wildly more satisfying than non-science so I rather disagree with your assertion that science is unsatisfying in general. Certainly, there seem to be many people who embrace non-rationality but the cause and effects of ending up in that place are many.
    Nice try at grouping Socialusm in general with non rational belief systems. Since the point of Socialism is to try to use scientific principles to explain economic conditions, this seems like a miscategorization to me.

  66. Steve H., dittoing that. I was thinking this morning for some reason about facts and statistics and how statistics can be played but facts cannot, and that got me thinking about people who say they “believe” in science as if it’s no difference than, well, anti-science. But I don’t believe in science; I am convinced by the evidence. The other side simply ignores evidence and believes.

    And really, anyone who thinks scientology and socialism are similar has paid little attention to both. The science in scientology is like the democracy in North Korea’s full name, a recognition that what isn’t there still matters.

  67. Steve H writes: “I find science wildly more satisfying than non-science …” An interesting comment given it’s written on the blog of a fiction writer. There are hundreds – thousands – of interesting science blogs who might find the encouragement cheerful.

    And: ” the point of Socialism is to try to use scientific principles to explain economic conditions” Nope, it ain’t. That may be ‘economics’ writ large, but not socialism. In fact, socialist theory ignores much of what *is* known; take for instance Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Written nearly 3/4 of a century ago and how many have read – much less understood it?

  68. Oneill, what does a voting theorem have to do with socialism? You might as well argue that Marx didn’t take dark matter into account.

    And yes, I chose that example because there are people who question the theory of dark matter.

  69. Steve, “I find science wildly more satisfying than non-science so I rather disagree with your assertion that science is unsatisfying in general.”

    Science gives us a world to which we must bring our own meanings. Some people find that incomplete.

    If you have a tapeworm, your tapeworm is just as worthy of scientific study as you are.

    A long time ago I read about some fossil crinoids that had fossil crabs associated with them. Paleontologists believed that the small crabs held onto the calyx and ate crinoid shit, and that their mouthparts and chelipeds eventually evolved to better do this. I assumed they were all extinct now, but there are hundreds of species of crinoids still surviving with a variety of crab commensals, and maybe some of these survive too. Those crabs are just as important to the universe as humanity is.

    You and I are OK living in this kind of world, but some people prefer not to make their own meanings. De gustibus.

  70. Steve H: “Nice try at grouping Socialusm in general with non rational belief systems. Since the point of Socialism is to try to use scientific principles to explain economic conditions, this seems like a miscategorization to me.”

    No attempt at categorizing includes everything, each of them leaves out some things while grouping others. The important thing I was considering was systems that give meaning, not systems that are non rational.

    Economics did not start out scientific. In europe, economic thought was first done by christian monks who used christian aristotelian reasoning. They argued the difference between good trade and bad robbery or fraud, and argued that banking — usury — was always evil just as Jesus said.

    The aristotelian approach of arguing from first principles has persisted in economics to some extent even today. Its flaws are easiest to see in arguments we disagree with. So for example consider Ayn Rand’s essays. She says that for a very long time society has been dominated by the Leader and the Priest. (I forget the names she gave them.) The Leader organizes society in ways that give him control, and the Priest fills people’s heads with mumbo-jumbo so they put up with it. They do it solely for their own benefit, so they can take away the freedom and wealth that rightly belongs to individuals. When we get rid of the Leaders and Priests once and for all, then we will have a utopia where everyone has the freedom to become rich.

    Her writing really is that cartoonish. There are elements of socialist thought that go roughly: For a long time society has been dominated by the Capitalist who takes most of the wealth that rightly belongs to Workers. He does this entirely for his own benefit and at the Workers’ cost, because he wants to enjoy the Workers’ wealth. When we get rid of the Capitalists once and for all, then we will have a utopia where everyone can become equal.

    The central concept here is to provide *meaning*. A sense of what has gone wrong, whose fault it is, who to punish for it, and the joy we will find once the bad guys who cause our suffering have been stopped.

    There have also been attempts to describe important ideas clearly. For example Adam Smith’s pin factory, which shows people working together to get results, while their individual specialized jobs leave them with Marx’s alienation — spending their time as cogs doing repetitive work, part of a big machine, they lose the concept that they are valuable people with rights.

    Starting mostly within the last 50 years, there have been attempts to do economics in a scientific way. Rather than starting with archetypes and reasoning how they must interact due to the inherent aristotelian logic of their inner natures, some economists actually observe businesses and consumers etc and notice how they behave in reality, and try to notice generalizations that tend to work out. By far the larger part of economics is not done this way, and the work is mostly ignored, but it is slowly accumulating and will inevitably someday bear fruit. When aristotelian thinking is banished from economics we will have a utopia where science actually describes how economies work in practice.

  71. Oneillsinwisconsin “In fact, socialist theory ignores much of what *is* known”

    I have to figure that’s going beyond the data. There is a tremendous volume of theory that could be labeled socialist, much of it recent. Far more than I could possibly keep up with. How would we know whether all of it ignores Arrow’s Theorem?

    And then, why shouldn’t it ignore Arrow’s Theorem? I’m sure the vast majority of non-socialist economic papers ignore Arrow’s Theorem too. For that matter, a large fraction of physics papers ignore relativity. It mostly only matters for interactions between charges that have high relative velocity. A whole lot of the time it’s irrelevant.

    I could imagine circumstances where your criticism would make sense. For example, if somebody wanted to do giant complicated computer simulations that predict results way down the road, while ignoring both problems of roundoff error and chaos theory, well — they can’t get away with ignoring that. Do lots of complicated calculations and you will eventually get important errors — unless you are very very careful you will subtract two large numbers and get a small difference, and nothing which uses that number will ever be very precise. Something big will happen from small causes and your predictions will fail.

    This is why planned economies can’t work well and free markets can’t work well. Shit happens.

    Maybe you have something like that? Something that invalidates the basic principles of socialism, that socialists cannot ignore or else they’re wrong? Something that requires socialists to take up some very new way of thinking, because their old way cannot work?

    I would be interested to find out about something like that. I’m pretty sure it isn’t Arrow’s Theorem.

  72. oneill- “An interesting comment given it’s written on the blog of a fiction writer. ”

    Huh? Are you saying I can’t enjoy both science and fiction? Why, that would mean I couldn’t enjoy fiction that employs science as part of its storytelling! What might we call that, I wonder? Fables of Scienceness, or FaSci for short, maybe.

    On the rest of your post I have no comment.

  73. “What might we call that, I wonder?”

    Probably it should have something about sciencism in the title….

  74. Interestingly, I do speak with scientists. Amazingly, I can both enjoy fiction and tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction.
    Astonishingly, I am fairly sure we’ve covered a wide range of topics in this blog of a fiction writer.

    I don’t find Arrows Impossibility Theorem to be a any practical limit to a managed economy. There are plenty of ways to break out of its “impossible” paradox.

  75. From what I can tell from my observations of the portion of academia responsible for economics, most of its output is elegant and scientific-sounding bullshit designed to obscure what is really going on. Those few academics who want to break away from neo-liberal orthodoxy face an incredible uphill climb. Play the game, don’t ruffle the feathers of the big donors, and some say tenure will be yours, but probably not since more budget cuts are coming.

    Academics will not be the saviors. It seems more the case that they have taken the spot of the priests in that wise saying about rulers and entrails.

  76. Will writes:”Oneill, what does a voting theorem have to do with socialism? You might as well argue that Marx didn’t take dark matter into account.”

    I think my answer was already given in the comment I posted: “…how many have read – much less understood it?”

    Believing this as applicable to only voting systems pretty much underlines my point.

  77. Oneill, Arrow didn’t seem to think the theorem as profound as you do; he said, “Most systems are not going to work badly all of the time. All I proved is that all can work badly at times.”

  78. Will – Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has to do with all social choices and how we make them. Unless you’re going to argue that Socialism never requires the making of social choices, then obviously it applies to socialism as much as any other democratic structure.

    As the NY Times wrote:
    “What Professor Arrow proved in his book “Social Choice and Individual Values” (1951) was far more sweeping. Not only would majority-voting rules prove unsatisfactory; so, too, would nonvoting systems of making social choices if, as was fundamental to his way of thinking, those choices were based on the preferences of the individuals making up the society. ”

    Not one of Wiki’s best articles. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is slightly better ( ), but Amartya Sen’s is probably as good an intro as any's%20ARRO-COL%2009A.pdf

  79. Just mentioning the incredibly abstract Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem as if it was gospel, as if the assumptions it is built on are necessarily ones we’d agree with, and without any actual arguments as to its relevance to socialist theory (the precise logic of which you have generally refused to engage with in favour of broad statements of truths you consider self-evident) is just not convincing. Frankly, it barely qualifies as discourse.

    Simply knowing the name of a capitalist economist who happens to have died recently doesn’t constitute seriously engaging with an argument, nor does posturing about how “most people” don’t even know something. How about making an actual cohesive argument regarding why this one particular theorem, and what it has to say about a specific way of considering aggregate choices under very abstract circumstances and making a number of necessary assumptions, somehow constitutes a significant stumbling block in the Marxist understanding of class struggle and historical materialism; and please do so using the actual logic that Marxists subscribe to, not what you would like to think Marxism might say.

  80. Will & O’Neill:Arrow’s theorem is a fine and interesting theorem. A current example of where it applies is in our current methods of voting (which as we are seeing are rather sucky (for a technical) term at producing outcomes that most people like). We get to pick one or the other without any nuance or information conveyed other than that one piece of ranking information.
    If you allow for more information to get transmitted with the vote, for example, if I am allowed to express the quantity of my approval for a candidate in some voting units (or even better in multi-values voting units) and I give candidate A 3 units, candidate B 5 units and candidate C 2 voting units, the theorem does not apply.
    Likewise, if I am able to express non-transitive relationships between the objects of my vote: I like A > B, B > C but C > A (this usually displays from deeper knowledge among the choices), the theorem does not apply.
    Basically, as soon as you allow some complexity to be expressed in the way that choices are expressed, the theorem no longer applies.
    Voting system, their applicability to market dynamics and the interaction of machine learning algorithms are rich topics. No one’s saying that any of this is going to be easy.

    Here’s an example from a slightly different realm:
    Finding the shortest route that visits a set of locations is an exponentially difficult problem (doing a brute force scan is n! where n is the number of nodes. : finding the optimal shortest path for 10 cities is 30,000 times as hard as 5 cities.). Clearly, Google saw this and just gave up on using maps to produce routing directions. Oh, wait, no they didn’t. What they use instead is an approximation algorithm. Approximation algorithms give solutions that are highly likely to be within some percentage of the optimal solution within a reasonable amount of time and for all practical uses are good enough.

    In other words, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  81. Oneill, thanks for the links. I’m always sad when Wikipedia fails us. But otherwise, I’m with Steve H: that there is not a perfect voting system is not an argument against democratic socialism in particular or democracy in general.

  82. O’Neill- Are you using Arrow as an argument against the feasibility of a planned economy?

    I can see that he would have some application. If you are deciding on production through some sort of voting system, then yes, that would be clunky and prone to missteps. If instead managers are trying to plan production based on perceived needs of the populace, a much simpler system, Arrow might come into play if there is a large enough conflict between needs of different segments of the population and if production could not be fine grained enough to meet all needs. If, as a third option, production were set computationally based on real time information gathered by widespread networks, the most likely scenario, I’m not sure Arrow would apply at all.

    In any case, as Steve Halter suggests, perfection is not the logical measure for success. In order to be worth trying, a socialist economy would just have to do a better job than a capitalist economy at efficiently and fairly distributing necessities. Since any capitalist economy, even one functioning exactly as designed, does a terrible job of delivering goods to most of the people that need them, the bar is set very, very low.

  83. The Uncertainty Principle and the Halting Problem both show certain problems to be impossible to solve perfectly. And yet, we still measure things quite well enough, most of the time, and compilers successfully halt far more often than they don’t. Even after Gödel, we are still able to decide the truth or falsity of many, many things.

    To know that perfection is impossible is valuable, but It doesn’t make improved approximation LESS valuable.

  84. O’neill, it looks like I was right about your argument, which I think is derived better from chaos theory than from Arrow’s theorem.

    You can’t predict things very well because far too often important variables don’t have finite variance. You can sometimes get infinite variance when you divide one random variable by a second random variable. Or even divide a constant by a random variable.
    We get “black swan” events more often than one would predict from historical data.

    It’s predictable that economic systems will appear to be running fine for awhile and then things will go to shit, and afterward they pick up the pieces as well as they can and run predictable for awhile and then go to shit again.

    We can somewhat alleviate that by maintaining reserves for emergencies. Don’t use everything for consumption or investment to provide future consumption. Keep a large reserve handy in case of emergency. Most of the time that reserve will be wasted when it could have been used to help the economy grow faster, but every now and then it pays off very well. Sometimes the catastrophe is so big that you lose a lot despite the reserve which uselessly crippled growth for so long.

    It helps to collect a lot of information quickly that might warn you quicker when a crisis is coming. The slower you respond, the worse off you are. But this can backfire. The information can be expensive, and you might not know how to pick the important data out of the noise. If you respond too strongly to preliminary data then you can cause a lot of problems when the catastrophe wasn’t coming after all. Often it helps. Do the times it hurts things count too much? I don’t know how to predict that. You can’t necessarily predict by past history.

  85. “Exploitation”, “Profit” – the language of bourgeois property relations. An indignant outpouring from a middle-class “radical” Muslim feminist of colour who fears the ladder she’s climbing is on shaky ground and responds with panic and aggression. White, male authors should be “pilloried” for writing non-white male characters. The critic she walks out on is likened to far-right demagogues and the actions of the capitalist state. And she demands that authors who wish to tell the stories of “others” must first seek permission – from who exactly is not made explicit. Presumably the various cultural and ethnic institutions that have integrated themselves into the capitalist patchwork.

  86. Thank you for your post. As a song-writer, a settler living on Haudenosaunee land, you are a great encouragement.

  87. Joshua, what infuriates me most about these people is that by their logic, they should not write about anyone who is not of their class.

  88. Will, I don’t think that’s quite it.

    They think YOU should not write about anyone who is not of YOUR class.

    They get a pass because they are not the exploiters.

  89. Does anyone else have an involuntary twitch when they hear the neologism “intersectionality”?

  90. jet, yep.

    Cromarty, I translate it to “disconnectionality”, which is how it functions. And yeah, it triggers me. (Joke. “Trigger” also triggers me when it’s used by trigger-happy folk.)

  91. Once upon a time ,In a far way place called revolutionary USA ,a man called Lincoln (WHITE SKIN),did write a EMANCIPATION DECLARATION <for Black skinned slaves,10 000's of White skinned UNION Soldiers ,laid down their lives so his words would become HISTORY DEMOCRATIC!

    True ,his friends like , Fredrick Douglas ,had Black skins ,but they were NOT THE AUTHOR!

    Thus Millions of Blackskins were EMANCIPATED from Chattel slavery!


  92. REVOLUTIONARY PROLETARIAT:On the other hand, on the other side were a bunch of people who wanted the opposite. The color of the sides of the civil war was not the determining factor of their beliefs. It was rather the content of their beliefs and the results of their actions that mattered.

  93. Will writes: “I’m with Steve H: that there is not a perfect voting system is not an argument against democratic socialism in particular or democracy in general.”

    This after I’ve specifically said believing Arrow’s Theorem only applies to voting system’s is incorrect. It applies to all social choices. It’s why it’s at the heart of social choice theory.

    A closely tied corollary is essentially a mathematical analogue of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. A set of axioms that each are individually acceptable can still lead to dictatorial conditions.

    Stop thinking of Arrow as having *anything* to do with voting and you’ll be on the road to understanding.

    As Amartya Sen points out, we know it as Arrow’s *Impossibility* Theorem; but Arrow called it a General *Possibility* Theorem. Yes, he used voting systems as an example, but that’s trivial. Condorcet was there centuries earlier. It is the application to social choice in general – including non-voting systems – that makes it interesting and powerful.

  94. Oneill, I’m out. You seem to be much more interested in theory than practice.

    Relevant for socialists: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” —Karl Marx

  95. Alright, yes, O’Neill, Arrow’s theorem attempts to prove that social choices based on preference are not always fair. So what?

    Even if you accept his hypothesis as unequivocally true, what does it mean? If it is difficult to guarantee that social choices can be made that will completely satisfy all the members of a society, does that mean you stop making choices? Shall we all retreat to polities of one? Should we stop trying to increase fairness because we will never achieve perfect fairness?

    You seem to be saying that all socialist thought is irrelevant if it can’t solve this intractable problem. Since you have been an advocate in the past of blended economies, I imagine that is not what you are trying to say. I also can’t figure out what it is you are actually trying to say. So, as a favor to me, can you state it simply and clearly, preferably without invoking Arrow because we have all said his name enough already.

  96. O’Neill is generalizing.

    I have some other examples. In control theory, some people naively assumed that when there is feedback everything will inevitably be optimized. But it turns out that poorly tuned control systems will oscillate increasingly until the system is damaged, or form a stable orbit that spends most of its time far from equilibrium (like a comet that rather than falling into the sun spends most of its time in the distant cold), or it can even become chaotic with a pattern where various things can be predicted but not the actual path. Even well-tuned control systems will tend to oscillate in a small quick patter most of the time. And for almost any control system there will be some sequence of inputs that will cause weird behavior.

    Sometimes people want to solve mathematical formulas etc by having a computer create some random solutions and then gradually improve on them. Hill-climbing algorithms. Evolutionary algorithms. Use what you found out from previous attempts to build better solutions. The No Free Lunch theorem shows that every algorithm that works for some domain of problems, will utterly fail for some other domain of problems. Basicly what happens is that you use the knowledge from previous attempts to focus later attempts in the most likely areas. And there are always domains where the kind of knowledge you collected from previous attempts will lead you astray.

    So this sort of thing is not limited to social choice. It can happen in lots of places.

    Why does this matter for socialism more than for other social structures? It doesn’t. It matters if you have a goal. If you have a goal, somethings things will not work out. Sometimes the things you do to achieve your goal will keep you from achieving your goal.

    If you are trying to create a just merciful society, sometimes you will create unjust merciless situations. If you are Wiley Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, sometimes you will paint a tunnel on to a rock face, and the Roadrunner will run into it, and when you try to follow you will knock yourself out on the rock.

    Again, why would this matter more for socialism? Here’s the only thing I can think of — Marxists have prophecied a future timeline. It fits the Christian version surprisingly well. After a whole lot of tribulations, inevitably socialism will be established, the state will wither away, and utopia will arrive. It might seem like a criticism that it basicly parallels the christian predictions, but I think it’s just fine — a revolutionary doctrine does not lose by being put into a form that existing people can easily follow.

    If nothing can work reliably, then socialism can’t work reliably either and we won’t reach a utopia where everything just works.

  97. Jethomas5:Yes. Of course what is amusing (were it not so painful) is that the “free market” is exactly a type of pseudo-random search algorithm that is susceptible to the same weaknesses as any other. We call these failures depressions, recessions and bubbles. Alas, no magic.

    There is always going to be work involved to keep systems working in the direction we want them to work. Avoiding misery and black swans is a challenge.

  98. Steve, yes! The claim that free markets must head toward an optimum or even toward some stable equilibrium is pretty much false.

    It’s possible to make a from-first-principles argument that when there is a predictable cycle, people will detect the pattern and bet against it, reducing the magnitude of the cycle until it is too small to be profitable to exploit. So according to that argument, the fluctuations in free markets should be random and irregular, and some of them will be caused by marketers who think they are betting against events which don’t come, or who do not realize the consequences of their trades, or who want to create market instability hoping to profit from it.

    I think that’s a prediction which is worth testing, since a priori arguments often miss some important facts which change the results. It does have the fudge factor that there could be reasons why it is not profitable to bet against a predictable market change.

  99. “poorly tuned control systems will oscillate increasingly until the system is damaged, or form a stable orbit that spends most of its time far from equilibrium”…an apt description for the vicissitudes of Stalinist tactics, strategy and theory (in that order, one following the other).

  100. “…Stalinist tactics, strategy and theory (in that order, one following the other).” Yes, exactly.

  101. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on Russian history

    I have the impression that the Bolsheviks were able to take over the Russian government partly because they were ready and willing to take decisive action which trumped whatever anybody else did. And the previous government had not been decisive but had debated things incessantly, leaving a lot of people frustrated and ready for a change.

    And the Stalinists did the same thing. They were ready and willing to take decisive action which trumped whatever anybody else did. In that context it didn’t matter whether they did the *right* things, because they did things which no one else could stop.

    Since they were willing to use those tactics, they became inevitable. No one could stop them.

    And as time went by, the tactics which no one could stop became increasingly perverse. But still inevitable. Done not so much because somebody thought they were the right thing to do, but instead because they were the way to win.

    You have to choose winning tactics, because if you don’t then somebody else will. If you choose tactics that don’t win, you lose.

    Your strategy must include using the winning tactics. Your theory must fit your winning strategy, or else it will be irrelevant.

    And if there are winning tactics somebody else can use which you can’t use? Then it sucks to be you.

    It sucked to be a Menshevik. Later it sucked to be a Bolshevik who was not a Stalinist.

    Later still it just sucked. To win you had to become a monster. To lose meant you were a victim of monsters.

    What made it particularly bad that time around was that it was a revolution. Nobody was in charge. Nobody could set ground rules. Whoever used the tactics that trumped all others, won.

    In good times, the public is strong and the people who play at politics are relatively weak. They have to abide by public opinion and so their tactics involve doing only deniable things, things that the public won’t find out about, things that they can present to the public as decent behavior. If Ronald Reagan had set up detention camps and put tens of millions of Democrats in them, the public would not have liked him. He couldn’t get away with that.

    If Reagan had detained and tortured a few thousand foreigners? I don’t know. Maybe he did that, and the public didn’t hear. They didn’t believe that was happening until after 9/11, when a lot of them thought it was a good thing. Before 9/11, if you thought it was happening then people would say you were a nutty conspiracy theorist.

    In bad times the public is afraid, and they try to join a side they think is strong because a weak side can’t defend them. It can’t defend them from the stronger side, so it can’t defend them from anything else either.

    The Melian claim: The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.
    My claim: The strong do what they must, and the weak suffer what they must.

    To do better, we might somehow arrange things so that the best tactics further societal goals. Or at least don’t impede them. I’m not sure how to do that, since it isn’t clear how you can change the world when the world is so powerful at changing you. But when I thought about it I came up with a science-fictiony idea of one possible way it might work.

  102. Here’s my idea:

    First we persuade the public that normal people are basicly sociopaths who far too often will do whatever gets them a short-run advantage. We have plenty of examples. Eichmann. Nazi history generally. Stalinists. Republicans. Democrats. The Pinochet regime in Chile. Lots and lots of examples.

    When the public is convinced, then we propose a solution. Do not allow anyone to be a politician until he has been thoroughly brainwashed into doing only decent, respectable behavior. Get the behavioral science people to create a program for that. Graduates of the brainwashing program get to have a special tattoo on their forehead that says they have permission to be politicians.

    Monitor their behavior, since after all brainwashing doesn’t always last and somebody else could reprogram them. If they show signs of recovery — things like attempting to cut Social Security, or arguing for a war that the public isn’t already convinced is absolutely necessary, or scurrilous debate tactics, require them to get a refresher. Also, once the public is convinced that a recovering politician is a giant danger to society, when one of them develops symptoms of normality somebody will assassinate him.

    After as few as 6 such assassinations, politicians will develop the understanding that the US public is a giant collection of armed sociopaths, who will only tolerate politicians if they are decent and respectable. The public does not want people like themselves to run the government, because they have seen what a bad idea that is. Then politicians will do their very best to pretend that they are decent and respectable whether or not the brainwashing works.

    I suspect this would not work perfectly. But it is the best idea I’ve had so far. It’s worth a try unless somebody comes up with something that looks better.

  103. Arrow was a Social Democrat.

    The idea that Socialism isn’t aware of the fact that choices can never be perfectly optimal past certain bounds is rather a large ask.

  104. jethomas5: My own SF daydream is that we develop a reliable, non-spoofable test for degree of sociopathy. All politicians are required to take that test, and those scoring too high are not allowed to hold office. Also, all score data is public.

    I do not think it is true (or a good idea to promote) that society is mostly sociopaths. Most current power structures *are* majority sociopaths, but that’s a very strongly selected, atypical sample.

  105. Alexx, I sympathize with your idea.

    I was amused by the thought of scaring sociopaths into a *careful* pretense of altruism, in a way that would work moderately well even if the actual testing/treatment did not in fact work.

    I increasingly believe that most Americans are sociopaths, just some hide it better than others. For example, farmers who raise cattle in a friendly way until they send them off to be butchered. It’s just what you have to do to be a farmer, you have to just accept that’s how it works. Businessmen. Women in their dealings with generally-unattractive men. Men in their dealings with women of all sorts.

    We’re all bozos on this bus.

  106. jethomas, humans aren’t rational. That doesn’t mean most of them are sociopaths. Though I am sympathetic that capitalism is designed for sociopaths.

  107. The DSM-5 defines antisocial personality disorder as “[a] pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

    Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
    Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
    Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
    Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
    Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
    Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
    Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”

    I think that “sociopath” is much closer to normal than people want to say.

    But most people conform very well to arbitrary social norms.

    They do a lot of deceit as a matter of course, but not in important ways that will get detected easily.

    Of course they fail to plan ahead a lot, but they plan ahead some.

    They are often irritable and sometimes aggressive, but not in ways that get them into fights that are outside social norms.

    They only show reckless disregard for safety in socially-approved ways. When it’s a way that would get them scorned by society, they don’t do it.

    They usually sustain consistent work behavior and honor financial obligations, in the ways that are socially approved.

    They are indifferent to other people’s pain and rationalize etc, when it’s socially acceptable to do so. Otherwise they express the socially-approved feelings about such things.

    So for example consider the identitarian mess. Consider for example a typical male feminist identitarian. He spends a lot of time trying to shame people. Does he care about how he hurts the people he shames? Not at all! He says he’s doing the right thing, that they deserve to be ashamed because they are sexist. He says that all men are fundamentally sexist, himself included, and we must spend every waking hour fighting our sexist impulses and trying to become better people. If we suffer *enough* it will make us better human beings.

    And he would say that you are the sociopath, who makes glib charming arguments to support your sexist positions even while you disrespect all women and mistreat them without a second thought or a single moment of guilt. Do you always make certain you do 50% or more than 50% of all housework? Do you always make sure that timid women get their fair share of conversation even when they are too shy to ask for it? Do you ever treat a woman in a stereotypical way, fitting the sexist society’s norms? You are guilty of mistreating women and ignoring their pain! You are a sociopath!

    What makes it happen is that the social norm is relaxed — we don’t have clear guidelines about how to respond to identitarians. They say we should respond their way, and a lot of people disagree but don’t have it clearly articulated why they disagree or what people should do instead. Since the norms don’t define what the proper behavior is, people act like assholes and feel no remorse.

    Sociopaths are people who are mostly normal except they fail to abide by social norms. So they lie in socially unacceptable ways (as well as acceptable ways), they get into fights (probably partly because they violate social norms and people get outraged), and they don’t hold down jobs and fall into debt.

    They don’t show remorse in the social contexts where they are supposed to show remorse.

  108. Jethomas, now you’re underestimating the power of ideology combined with conformity. Humans who are willing to hurt others in the name of goodness are monsters, but they’re not sociopaths. Sociopaths don’t have a good record of becoming non-sociopaths, but there are many people who came to see the error of their ways. I’m fond of what the Salem Witch Trial jurors said five years later: “…we also pray that we may be considered candidly and aright by the living sufferers as being then under the power of a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with and not experienced in matters of that nature.”

  109. I don’t want to say it’s all the same. Sociopaths do have something else wrong with them, they don’t conform and so they stand out. There may even be more than that.

    But things like stalinism happen. People are willing to conform to terrible standards when they feel they have no choice. And it looks to me like often the people at the “top” who theoretically have choices, also feel they have no choice.

    I read that during the purges, they transported prisoners in trucks that were faked to look like refrigerated trucks that carried meat. There was a joke — why are there so many meat trucks when there is so little meat? Maybe somebody was afraid that people would not put up with it if they saw how much of it was going on.

    But still, people did put up with it. And I wonder if it would help if we could somehow get a consensus that we will not accept leaders unless we believe they are considerably better than we are.

  110. I think it would be good to develop reliable tests and treatments for sociopathy. Actually, I think greater focus on mental health would help alleviate a lot of the problems in the world.

    Most people aren’t full blown Psychopaths but an unfortunate number are willing to follow the dictates of people who are. If no one follows a socipathic leader, then said leader is just a random sociopath. Showing people that following evil people is a bad thing is a surprisingly difficult thing to get across. In their internal monologue, they have generally convinced themselves they are doing the right thing. It’s for their family or their god or whatever. Sometimes they are just afraid. After the fall of the evil leader, some people seem to be able to emerge from this state with a, “WTF was I thinking!” realization. Some people never do.

    A reliable way of breaking people out of personality cults would also be a really useful treatment.

  111. The whole point of the Marxist approach to economics and politics is that it doesn’t care about judging individuals. The kindest capitalist boss will still exploit his or her workers; that’s simply the nature of profit.

  112. “A reliable way of breaking people out of personality cults would also be a really useful treatment.”

    I’m hesitant about that. (Though of course we can’t predict or determine the course of scientific advance, and must accept whatever is discovered.)

    Very likely, if we found a reliable way to break people out of personality cults, it would also reveal a reliable way to bind people tightly into personality cults.

    Kind of the way if we found a way to keep asteroids from hitting the earth, it would probably also be a way to make asteroids hit the earth on command, and it would be used to destroy enemy cities or enemy nations — the intention would be to use asteroids that are just big enough to accomplish the task and not so big they would destroy all of humanity. At least with any one strike.

    I would prefer that we find the techniques to brainwash everybody into becoming *good* people first, and deal with the personality cults and asteroids later.

  113. “The kindest capitalist boss will still exploit his or her workers; that’s simply the nature of profit.”

    And the kindest rancher will still send his steers off to be butchered — that’s simply the nature of cattle farming.

    The kindest slave-owner, even if he lets his slaves live in air-conditioned tract houses with color TVs and dishwashers and full internet access, and lets them drive their automobiles to work 5 days a week for 8 hour shifts, still exploits his slaves.

    A kind slave-owner will keep his slaves on as retirees when they get old, while an unkind slave-owner will free them when they are no longer productive. A kind slave-owner will find some sort of work for his slaves and still provide for them in depressions, while an unkind slave-owner will leave them to shift for themselves.

    I find this line of thought depressing.

  114. “I find this line of thought depressing.”

    It’s not depressing – it’s liberatory, because it unshackles exploitation from morality. It shows that the problems we face aren’t because humans are evil or sociopathic, but because of the abstract logic of our economic system. Our problem isn’t nasty bosses, but the appropriation of surplus value. (That, you must remember, is the Marxist definition of exploitation.) The thing to fix isn’t human nature, it’s the relationship of workers to the means of production.

  115. Jonas:Yes, once fully in place that would take care of the bad leader problem. One problem seems to lie in the dangers of getting to the right place. Many good intentions seem to wind up hung in the shrubbery of disaster. It seems like everything we can do to smooth the path in the right direction should help.

    We also do also have to help me take health. In many cases that is a physical problem that won’t be fixed by switching economics. Or, economics should aid in the helping of human ailments, not ignore or inflict them. Capitalism is very good at ignoring and inflicting.

  116. “It’s not depressing – it’s liberatory, because it unshackles exploitation from morality.”

    I’m not unhappy that you find solace in it.

    To me the idea that we are all trapped inside a system which actively maintains itself by forcing us to do its bidding, is appalling. That our hope of improving things rests on us imagining something better and somehow creating it — and enforcing it — against the active opposition of the system which actively resists change, looks pretty bleak.

    But it’s not that different from the moral view, just a different emphasis. Morality says you should do what’s right even though you expect to be punished for it. It’s looking at the same situation through the other end of the telescope.

  117. I have been reading the Dragaeran novels for some years now and have only just now began reading Mr. Brust’s blog out of desperation as I have been seeking some way to get myself affordable copies of The Viscount of Adrilankha. I love this blog particularly. It took me some time to wrap my head around the language and comprehend exactly what was being discussed, but by about the 5th paragraph or so, I finally was following the author’s train of thought as well as I believe I could. I really appreciate the sentiment. Thank you for helping to break down the barriers and walls that people of all sides of our culture have been building back up recently.

  118. I read this post some time ago, and appreciated reading this essay by skzb (whose writing I enjoy very much!).
    I came across a podcast from a young videomaker which reminded me of your post; it was this one: “Female Filmmaker Gets Called Out”
    Note that I don’t know if my comment has any relevance to this discussion, but I thought I would post this link about diversity in fiction with, in my opinion, some interesting points.
    (I fear that you writers are way beyond the points discussed in this video, and I feel a little stupid about posting the link, so I click on “post comment” before I change my mind and remain silent.)

  119. Just watched it. No, I don’t think it’s directly relevant to this conversation, but I do think it’s an interesting discussion. Thanks for the link.

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