Monday, July 31, 2017

The Goldfish Bowl Fallacy, aka The Lived Experience Fallacy

The Goldfish Bowl Fallacy: the idea that a local knows a situation better than an outsider, and a person who has lived an experience knows it better than people who have researched it.

This fallacy appears regularly in the writings of people who want to justify their local customs—defenders of slavery and apartheid claimed outsiders couldn't know what was best in their land.

The name comes from the old observation that relying on subjective experience leaves us like goldfish in a glass bowl, with no understanding of what limits us and no idea what may exist beyond it.

This does not mean our experiences are worthless. But without researching them, we have no way to know if our experiences are common or unique, and we have no way to test the conclusions we draw.

The fallacy might also be called the Flat Earth Fallacy. Flat-Earthers can honestly say they've never experienced the curvature of the Earth. By rejecting outside evidence, they do not have to be troubled by the idea they might be wrong.

ETA: This might also be called the Satan Fallacy: Just because you credit the worst things you've experienced to Satan does not mean Satan is the cause

ETA: Or this could be the Inverted Ad Hominem Fallacy. Ad Hominem assumes you are wrong because of your identity; the Lived Experience Fallacy assumes you are right because of your identity.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

If the Black Panthers were class reductionists, I'm one too

“Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. Let me emphasize again — we believe our fight is a class struggle, not a race struggle.” — Bobby Seale, co-founder Black Panther Party

“Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people: poor whites, poor blacks, browns, red Indians, poor Chinese and Japanese... We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism.” — Bobby Seale

“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.” —Fred Hampton

“Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people: poor whites, poor blacks, browns, red Indians, poor Chinese and Japanese...” — Bobby Seale, Black Panther

Friday, July 28, 2017

Six hard questions about HBO's Confederate

To write alternate history well, you have to be accurate about history up to the moment that you change, and you have to make your changes matter to your audience, which means your story should be as complex as the history we know. With that in mind, here are some facts and questions for the Confederate showrunners:

1. Who is "white" in this timeline?

Before the Civil War, different southern states had different definitions of whiteness. In most, if you were a quadroon (a person who had three white grandparents and one black one), you were legally white. In a few, you had to be an octoroon (a person who had seven white grandparents and one black one) to be legally white.

Yes, the system was so insane that you could be white in one state and black in another.

In our history, the one drop rule (which made you black if there were any black people among your ancestors) was a creation of Jim Crow, the period of legal segregation that followed Reconstruction. The first state to impose the one drop rule was Tennessee in 1910. In a timeline where the Confederacy loses, it's very unlikely that the one drop rule would be implemented.

More: One-drop rule - Wikipedia

2. Who is a slave in this timeline?

In the United States, a slave was a person who was born to a slave. This meant people could be legally white by being quadroons or octoroons, yet still be slaves because their mothers were slaves. Legal whiteness did not free slaves. Only their owner could do that.

Slavery perverted the relationships among families of all races. For example, from Free Negro owners of slaves in the United States in 1830, together with Absentee ownership of slaves in the United States in 1830:
Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported by the enumerators. Some of these husbands were not anxious to liberate their wives immediately. They considered it advisable to put them on probation for a few years, and if they did not find them satisfactory they would sell their wives as other slave holders disposed of Negroes. For example, a Negro shoemaker in Charleston, South Carolina, purchased his wife for $700; but, on finding her hard to please, he sold her a few months thereafter for $750, gaining $50 by the transaction.
More: Slavery and the Making of America . Timeline | PBS

3. Who is rich in this timeline?

There were very rich black slave owners in the south, and one of the richest was a woman, the Widow C. Richards. When the south seceded, rich free blacks in Louisiana formed an army unit to fight for the Confederacy, but their service was turned down.

More: Did Black People Own Slaves? by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why by John Stauffer

The Free Men of Color Go to War - The New York Times

William Ellison - Wikipedia, the United States' richest black slave owner

Black Slave Owners by Robert M Grooms

4. Why does slavery still exist in this timeline?

In our history, slavery in the Americas ended when Brazil freed its slaves in 1890. While slavery still continues illegally, it's legal nowhere now--the last country to make it illegal was Mauritania. Both social and economic forces were at work to end slavery. It's easier to assume a modern segregated Confederacy than a slave state, so the writers should be prepared to rationalize their artistic choice.

5. What happens when the principle of secession has been established?

At the start of the Civil War, four slave states stayed in the Union: Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware. If the South successfully seceded, would those slave states join the Confederacy? Who else might secede from the Union or the Confederacy?

When I wrote Captain Confederacy, I created a fragmented North America:

6. What is your story about?

If your answer is only "racism", your story will be shallow. I don't offer my own work as an example of quality, but as an example of how an alternate universe story can be about something more than its ostensible subject: My primary concern when writing Captain Confederacy was not racism—it was patriotism. To address that, I wrote about people who wrapped themselves in their national flags.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Malcolm X "Respect Everyone" Flowchart

"Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery." - Malcolm X

Has someone put a hand on you?

No                                                           Yes

Be peaceful, courteous,                           Send them to the cemetery
law-abiding, and respectful                       but stay respectful—the
                                                                   Prophet Muhammad said,
                                                                         "Do not speak ill of the dead."

If you think following Malcolm's advice will make you less effective when protesting, ask whether it made Malcolm less effective when he protested.

Related: Respect everyone: the wisdom of St. Peter and Malcolm X

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Kenan Malik on the origins of identity politics

The origins of identity politics in the late eighteenth century lie with the reactionary right. The original politics of identity was racism and nationalism, and it developed out of the counter-Enlightenment. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities. ‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’
This is why I sometimes refer to left identitarianism and right identitarianism.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Women show more gender bias than men in Implicit Association Tests

There Are Problems With the Gender-Bias IAT, Too -- Science of Us:
The first thing to know about implicit-sexism IATs is that they follow a pattern not really seen in other areas of IAT research. Generally speaking, for IATs dealing with some oppressed class of people, nonmembers of that group score higher, and are therefore seen as more implicitly biased against the group. White people generally score higher on a so-called black-white IAT than black peoples for example, for example, while ethnic Germans generally score higher than ethnic Turks on IATs involving traditionally German and traditionally Turkish names (Turks are a marginalized minority group in Germany).

Sexism IATs are different. As Greg Mitchell and Phil Tetlock put it in a book chapter that is very critical of the IAT, “One particularly puzzling aspect of academic and public dialogue about implicit prejudice research has been the dearth of attention paid to the finding that men usually do not exhibit implicit sexism while women do show pro-female implicit attitudes.” This appears to be a pretty robust finding, and if you translate it into the same language IAT proponents speak elsewhere, it means men don’t have implicit sexism and are therefore unlikely to make decisions in an implicitly sexist manner (women, meanwhile, will likely favor women over men in implicitly-driven decision-making). Even weirder, when you switch to IATs geared at evaluating not whether the test-taker implicitly favors men over women (or vice versa), but whether they are quicker to associate men versus women more with career, family, and similarly gendered concepts, the IAT somewhat reliably evaluates women as having higher rates of implicit bias against women than men do.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Is there any evidence that Bernie Sanders ultimately helped or hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign?

There are two narratives that annoy me because I see no evidence for them. The first is the Clinton camp's insistence that Sanders hurt her chances of winning. The second is the authoritarian socialist insistence that Sanders helped the Democrats by running.

I followed the polls at RealClearPolitics. So far as I can tell, Sanders had no effect on Clinton—the only effect he had was to make people realize a democratic socialist could win.

My belief hangs on this fact: For most of the race the polls at RealClearPolitics said Clinton would beat Trump by one or two points, as she did—which meant she was within the margin of error to lose to the Electoral College, as she did. Those polls also said Sanders would beat Trump by eight to ten points. (Neoliberals dismiss that by citing their gut feeling that wouldn't happen, but their guts are irrelevant here. The fact remains that people knew Sanders's positions, they knew he called himself a socialist, and he quickly became and remains the country's most popular politician.)

Because the terms of competing for the presidency as a Democrat included endorsing the winner of the primaries, when Sanders was squeezed out by DNC shenanigans, he endorsed her.

And the polls showed no bump for Clinton because of his endorsement.


With Sanders out, his supporters settled for their second choice. Democratic lesser-evilists went for Clinton, Republican lesser-evilists went for Trump, third-partiers went for a third party, and stay-homers stayed home.

Clinton's fate can't be credited to Sanders. It's all on Clinton and the country's rejection of the neoliberalism that's been widening the gap between rich and poor for over thirty years now.

A reminder that Obama could have passed single-payer in 2009 if he had wanted to

Crossing National Public Radio (NPR) Off My List for Health Care Coverage | naked capitalism:
“Cobble together the votes” is sloppy language that conflates two arguments: First, a sin of commission: The argument that Democrats needed 60 votes to pass the bill against a filibuster. This is a lie, since the filibuster rules can be changed with a majority vote, which Reid did in 2013 (but for something important like judicial nominees, not saving American lives). Second, a sin of omission: ObamaCare was passed under reconciliation with a majority vote, so Democrats could have passed a real solution like single payer, as opposed to the best possible Republican plan, ObamaCare, which, as good neoliberals seeking a markets-first solution, is what they did.
Click the link in that paragraph for a longer explanation.

ETA: Read "Obama and the Democrats" if you wish, because it's true the Democrats needed to be willing to give us single payer, and they didn't even try.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Telling Students ‘Speech is Violence’ Could Be Dangerous

Telling Students ‘Speech is Violence’ Could Be Dangerous:
Setting aside the fact that no one will ever be able to agree on what’s “abusive” versus what’s “merely offensive,” the articles Barrett links to are mostly about chronic stress — the stress elicited by, for example, spending one’s childhood in an impoverished environment of serious neglect and violence. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood with a poor single mother who has to work so much she doesn’t have time to nurture you is not the same as being a college student at a campus where Yiannopoulos is coming to speak, and where you are free to ignore him or to protest his presence there.

Emma Bull's take on how the writers should handle the change of gender on Doctor Who

I wrote,
They don't need to do more than have the doctor glance in a mirror and react visually, or say something casual like, "That's interesting."
Emma wrote,
I remember when he complained about never regenerating as a ginger. Which would itself be a pretty great comment on this regeneration: "STILL not a ginger."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Speech, not skin or gender, matters most when recasting characters

On Twitter, talking about the new star of Dr. Who, John Bullock said,
Oh hang on. I'll accept a lady doc, black doc, gay doc, trans doc... but make the doc not British and I'm out. Some lines you don't cross!
Someone asked why, and I replied,
Because what ultimately characterizes people is speech, not skin. Batman must talk like a rich New Yorker, and the doctor, like a Brit.
This is why it makes perfect sense for Idris Elba to play James Bond and Jodie Whittaker to star on Doctor Who. It's why, in the 1990s, when a movie was made of the British Avengers TV show, I wanted Chow Yun-Fat to play Steed and Michelle Yeoh to play Emma Peel--Hong Kong's culture was sufficiently affected by British rule that Chow and Yeoh would have worked, while people with American accents would've just seemed wrong.

Doctor Who: invasion of the identitarians | spiked

Doctor Who: invasion of the identitarians | spiked:
...when a diverse sci-fi fantasy franchise succeeds (like Wonder Woman), it is held up as proof that the public is thirsting for more diverse output, but when a diverse franchise bombs (as the Ghostbusters reboot did), it is blamed on a bigoted nerd culture. Even when a production fails, the dogma of diversity wins. The quality of the material never comes into it. 
The female Doctor isn’t a victory for women, but for the BBC. Through identity politics, and the media fuss it always generates, the BBC has created the illusion that Doctor Who is more popular and cutting edge than it is.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

On Sandwichfail, Hipsters, and Foodie Privilege: Why Liberals Quibble with the Wrong Part of David Brooks' Essay

David Brooks, a conservative, talks about culture and class in How We Are Ruining America - The New York Times. The liberal internet is generally ignoring the parts about class—thereby showing class continues to be the US's last taboo—and focusing on this paragraph:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Alyssa Rosenberg has one of the nicer liberal responses in How good manners would have saved David Brooks from his deli disaster. She, like many others, thinks Brooks should have educated the friend rather than going somewhere else. Her take is what's expected from an American who is able to talk about going on vacation in Vietnam. Foodie culture is all about being the recommender, the discoverer, the one who is able to do the equivalent of calling "First!" on a culinary experience, and fellow foodies are delighted at the opportunity to be second because they know they'll share the new cuisine with their own friends.

For the rich and for adventurous members of the working class, finding and sharing new foods is a delight. What Brooks gets right is that this attitude is promoted in universities, and especially in expensive private universities, the finishing schools of the rich. But it's not limited to universities, of course—as a young man, my Dad traveled the world in the Merchant Marine and loved eating what the locals ate. Science fiction fans, perhaps because they tend to be university grads, have delighted in new cuisines for as long as there've been fans. People who live in major cities tend to take new cuisines for granted and look forward to the chance to try something new.

But people from limited backgrounds can feel like their ignorance is a reason for embarrassment. I don't know if David Simon based this scene in The Wire on something he experienced, but it rings true:

Some writers agree about the upper class's cultural barriers in ‘It’s Not the Fault of the Sandwich Shop’: Readers Debate David Brooks’s Column - The New York Times.

What the people who say Brooks should've educated his friend miss is that would put Brooks in the position of being the educator rather than the friend. People who assume everyone is like them would insist on eating at the gourmet shop and would show off their knowledge, and it's entirely possible that their guest would end up enjoying it.

But those of us who don't think all people are alike know this isn't the only possibility. The guest might be forced to pretend to be happy. Considerate people try to read the situation: is it better to push to go to the place that seems to make someone uncomfortable, or is it better to find an option that both of you like?

Brooks and his friend went for Mexican. There's an odd assumption from some people that this was condescending. I have to wonder if they associate Mexican food with working class food—the only information about class that's clear in Brook's anecdote is that the first choice was a gourmet sandwich shop.

I'd prefer Mexican.

PS. I'm sidestepping Brooks' class analysis here—as a socialist, I agree it's facile. I'm simply agreeing that there are cultural obstacles which richer people want to deny or downplay because the alternative is to acknowledge that they think their culture is better than that of the working class.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How to make us believe characters are in love

Emma and I are watching an old TV show that currently has two sets of characters involved in romances. One couple convinces me they're in love; the other does not. My first thought was the actors in the second couple didn't have chemistry. Then I realized I was letting the writers off the hook by failing to ask why those characters didn't have the vague thing we call chemistry.

The answer is the writers didn't provide it. The first couple get to have fun together. The second couple, the unconvincing couple, never do. It's not enough to show that characters care for each other. You have to show why they care. For most of us, that means doing things that make us laugh together.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Cultural appropriation theory criticized by people of color

Because identitarians believe the thoughts of people with "lived experience" matter most when discussing issues of social identity, here are some thinkers on race and culture who have unquestionable "lived experience":

Arun Gupta - I was sent this list below of "White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland.":
They want to fix all cultures as fossils in a museum, not allowing for adaptation, changing tastes, social roles, or fashion. It reminds me of how the National Front fetishizes a notion of the pure French nation.
In Defense of Cultural Appropriation - The New York Times by Kenan Malik:
Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

... There are few figures more important to the development of rock ’n’ roll than Chuck Berry (who died in March). In the 1950s, white radio stations refused to play his songs, categorizing them as “race music.” Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.

But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws?
On ‘Maybellene’ and General Tso’s Chicken by Jonathan Zimmerman:
Berry never claimed to be the sole originator of anything. "Chuck Berry’s style … is only back to the future of what came in the past," he wrote in his 1987 autobiography. "And you know, and I believe it must be true, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ So don’t blame me for being first, just let it last."
Let White People Appropriate Mexican Food—Mexicans Do It to Ourselves All the Time by Gustavo Arellano:
The Mexican restaurant world is a delicious defense of cultural appropriation—that's what the culinary manifestation of mestizaje is, ain't it? The Spaniards didn't know how to make corn tortillas in the North, so they decided to make them from flour. Mexicans didn't care much for Spanish dessert breads, so we ripped off most pan dulces from the French (not to mention waltzes and mariachi). We didn't care much for wine, so embraced the beers that German, Czech and Polish immigrants brought to Mexico. And what is al pastor if not Mexicans taking shawerma from Lebanese, adding pork, and making it something as quintessentially Mexicans as a corrupt PRI?
 Of kimono and cultural appropriation | The Japan Times by Shaun O'Dwyer:
Manami Okazaki, whose book “Kimono Now” analyses modern kimono fashions, told me that her main worry was “that this (protest) will affect museums/ event organizers wanting to do kimono shows in the future, which is the last thing the industry needs.”

...That message, recently iterated to me by an employee at the Nishijin Textiles Center in Kyoto, is this: Anyone can appropriate and creatively modify kimono styles whenever and however they like.

...Kaori Nakano, a professor of fashion history at Meiji University put it to me this way: “Cultural appropriation is the beginning of new creativity. Even if it includes some misunderstanding, it creates something new.”
Japanese-American in Boston: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA: "Kimono try on is an established part of Japanese cultural sharing. One of my friends reminded me that in Kyoto it's a big tourist thing to do something called "maiko for a day" (maiko are apprentice geisha) and it's popular with both Japanese people and international tourists. Another friend reminded me that it's common for non-Japanese to also wear kimono, yukata, and happi coats as obon festivals and other matsuris in places like Hawaii and California."

Japanese-American in Boston: Myths and facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the protests:
The MFA controversy clearly falls into the category of #firstworldproblems. I've continued to write about it because the protesters have continued to minimize and dismiss dissenting Japanese and Japanese American viewpoints which is not something I can accept.
Underneath the 'Orientalist' kimono | The Japan Times:
“The real reason why traditional kimono culture is about to (become) extinct,” wrote avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, “is because of its tendency to aspire to ‘perfection’ as a style that does not allow any other foreign item to be added to it. My advice for anyone wearing kimono is to challenge this rigidity; let’s forget about attending kimono lessons.”


From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much | By Adolph Reed Jr.:
When all is said and done, the racial outrage is about protection of the boundaries of racial authenticity as the exclusive property of the guild of Racial Spokespersonship. ... Beneath all the puerile cultural studies prattle about "cultural appropriation" ... lies yet another iteration in what literature scholar Kenneth Warren has identified in his masterful 2012 study, What Was African American Literature?, as a more than century-old class program among elements of the black professional-managerial stratum to establish “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.”
Bonus thoughts by people from groups that some say are not white:

If you think Greeks are not white or are "imperfectly white":  "Why the Theory of Cultural Appropriation is Pro-Capitalist"—a guest post by Jonas Kyratzes:
...people from those countries are rarely threatened by “outsiders” taking on elements of their culture; in fact, they celebrate it. In Greece, when some element of Greek culture becomes popular worldwide, it tends to make the news. As a good thing. As in hey, we’re poor and miserable and everything is shit, but at least we’re still relevant in the world. People like our stuff! If you all start loving the bouzouki, we’re not suddenly going to run out of music over here.
If you think Jews are not white: The Myth of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ - The Chronicle of Higher Education by Walter Benn Michaels: of the particular responsibilities of the humanities and social-science faculty is to help make sure that the students who take our courses come out not just richer than everyone else but also more virtuous. (It’s like adding insult to injury, but the opposite.)
Identity crimes — both the phantasmatic ones, like cultural theft, and the real ones, like racism and sexism — are perfect for this purpose, since, unlike the downward redistribution of wealth, opposing them leaves the class structure intact. Thus, for example, one can completely support (as I do) the actions of Middlebury College students in demonstrating their opposition to what they called Charles Murray’s "white nationalism" while at the same time noting that it’s not white nationalism that’s making poor people poorer; it’s capitalism. And when it comes to fighting capitalism, the Middlebury student body (median family income $244,300; about a quarter of Middlebury students come from the top 1 percent; three-quarters come from the top 20 percent) is not exactly in the revolution’s vanguard.
Update: Added several new bits about kimonos. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

On Zootopia and the problem with using species as a metaphor for race or ethnicity

I thought Zootopia was fun, but I hated its metaphor, something that's bugged me at least since Spiegelman's Maus. A human race is an artificial concept, a tribe allows outsiders to join and insiders to leave, but a species is an immutable aspect of identity. The fox and rabbit of Zootopia can be friends, unlike the cats and mice of Maus who are genetically driven to be enemies, but they cannot mate. Using species as metaphors for race or tribe validates the beliefs of black and white racists who babble about racial purity.

But I quibble. Zootopia and Maus both have something important to say, even though what they say is a bit muddled. That's human art for you.

The Powwow Dancer vs. the People of Privilege - Mobbing William Sanders

Note: William Sanders has died. To mark his passing, I'm resharing an old post.

“But why so little published fiction by real Indians—a people, after all, with a wonderfully rich storytelling tradition? One little-recognized problem lies in what might be called the expectation barrier. White America has certain definite ideas as to what it wants to hear from Indians—at least the publishing industry thinks so, and for once it is probably right—and the Indian writer whose work fails to fit the accepted template can expect a lot of frustration.” —William Sanders, reviewing Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues

“You have to remember, the SF writing community is mostly a lot of very nice people who have led very sheltered lives. They’re very easily shocked. It’s always amazed me that so many of these people who write all this stuff about strange worlds and fantastic adventures are such conventional, boring types in person. As Ajay Budrys once said to me, ‘They are a cautious and conservative lot, these probers on Man’s ultimate frontier. A trail of sheep shit marks their passing.’” —William Sanders, in an interview in Chronicle

In 1991, I saw a biplane with a Confederate flag on the cover of a paperback novel, The Wild Blue and the Grey. The back copy said it was about a Cherokee pilot in an alternate Earth’s world war. I bought the book knowing nothing about the author, but I knew I liked the way his mind worked. Whenever anyone asks me about Civil War alternate universe stories, my short list of recommendations includes William Sanders.

I began reading less fantasy and science fiction around then, so I didn’t follow his career closely. When I did read something of his, I was impressed. One of the few unique visions in a genre filled with generic tales is his Sidewise Award-winning “The Undiscovered,” a sad and funny short story about Shakespeare living among the Cherokee. You would think that anyone in the field who values diversity would make William Sanders one of their poster kids. He’s Cherokee and a damn fine writer. What more could they want?

Too many of them want someone with middle-class manners who shares their identitarian beliefs. Sanders, a self-described “redbone hillbilly” from Arkansas who served in Vietnam, has no time for ideologues.

In 2006, he started an on-line magazine called Helix SF. The first issue included Janis Ian’s “Mahmoud’s Wives,” a feminist story that was very critical of its titular muslim character. In Ian’s online forum, Sanders wrote:

There have been a number of complaints and criticisms of that story. Not, as you might think, from enraged Islamist types (we’ve been rather disappointed, actually; we were hoping for at least one little old fatwa) but from whining super-PC types in this country.

Believe it or not, we even got a letter from one nitwit who said she should have named the characters Doug and Griselda. “Doug’s Wives” would have been more Politically Correct, you see.

When you annoy people like that, you know you must be doing something right.

Take no prisoners!

That’s a fine example of his online style: he took no prisoners. He expressed himself bluntly and honestly and expected to get as good as he gave. He made many enemies, and I’m sorry to say I let myself become one over something I can’t even remember today.

Helix SF developed a reputation for solid stories from a diverse group of writers. Sanders helped the budding careers of writers like N. K. Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee. When he noticed he had acquired a lot of stories from women, he published an all-female issue. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) invited him to be their Guest of Honor. He was on his way to becoming one of the field’s grand old men.

But his redbone hillbilly ways didn’t just ruffle the feathers of people who expected everyone to practice white middle-class etiquette. He set feathers on fire and laughed when people got huffy.

I’ll say as little as I can about the next part of the story because too many writers set scenes like magicians controlling what the audience sees. I’ll only offer three things to prepare you:

In July of 2008, feelings about the war in the Middle East were strong, and many Muslims suffered for what a handful of Islamists had done.

Social justice fandom had just outed and terrorized Zathlazip.

Coffeeandink was calling for a boycott of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction because it published Dave Truesdale, a conservative.

Since I’m trying to present this in the way the internet received it, you may be temped to assume one of two things, depending on whether you hate Muslims or hate bigotry. Either will be wrong.

Sanders returned a Helix submission from Luke Jackson with a personal note. Jackson then committed one of publishing’s deadly sins: he made the rejection letter public. It’s now available on many sites, so I’ll share it. Sanders wrote:

No, I’m sorry but I can’t use this.

There’s much to like. I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people—at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can—and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.

However, as I say, I can’t use it. Because Helix is a speculative fiction magazine, and this isn’t speculative fiction.

Oh, you’ve tacked on some near-future elements at the end, but the future stuff isn’t in any way necessary to the story; it isn’t even connected with it in any causal way. True, the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty); he was headed in that direction from the start, and if it hadn’t been the encounter with the stripper it would have been something else.

Now if it could be shown that something in this incident showed him HOW the West could be overthrown, then perhaps the story would qualify as SF. That might have been interesting. As it is, though, no connection is shown and in fact we are never told just how this conquest—a highly improbable event, to say the least—came about.

There are some other problems with the story, but there’s no point in going into them, because they don’t really matter from my viewpoint. It’s not speculative fiction and I can’t use it in my magazine.

And I don’t think you’re going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason—though you’d have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.


The letter sparked flames across scifi’s electronic turf. The left side of fandom denounced Sanders as racist. Some Islamophobes thought he was simply telling the truth about Muslims or Middle Easterners or both. Sanders, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and a few others said a third interpretation was meant. At the site where Jackson posted the letter, Sanders left this comment:

Son, hasn’t anybody ever told you that public posting of a private email message is contrary to the rules both of accepted internet practice and common courtesy?

I do appreciate your efforts to be fair—certainly far more so than most of the other people in this ward, ah, group—but the fact remains that you’ve done something both socially and professionally unacceptable in posting it at all. So if you had any idea of submitting anything else to Helix, forget it. I won’t work with people who pull this kind of shit.

I suppose this is what I get for trying to be a nice guy, and give you a little encouragement rather than the standard thanks-but-no-thanks form rejection. Silly me.

(I notice, too, the presence in the lynch mob of another person I’ve tried to help, and to whom I thought I’d been particularly kind. No good deed, etc.)

Of course none of these people have read the story, and so they fail to grasp the context—that I was talking not about Muslims, or Arabs, or Oompa Loompas or any other religious or ethnic group, but about terrorists and violent extremists. (That being, after all, what your story was about.)

But I don’t feel any need to defend myself, or Helix, to these people; indeed I doubt that there’s anybody outside their little Mutual Masturbation Society who gives a damn what they think about anything at all.

They are cordially invited to have intercourse with their precious selves. I’m sure most of them could use the practice.

As the flames burned hotter, Jackson defended Sanders:

There is a truly despicable Muslim character in my story. Sorry, world. Maybe I was playing into prejudices. Sanders was talking about that character, so it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue rant, it was targeted to the content of my story. In context, his comments were directed at MY character and those types of extremists. People are taking it out of context and interpreting it too broadly if they think that Sanders was referring to all Arabs or all Muslims. I’m sure that if my character was a Timothy McVeigh-like extremist, Sanders would have used different but equally scornful language. The extremism of MY character is what drew his ire, and so if there is any blame it’s MY blame.

But third options are always rejected by people who live in black and white worlds. Nick Mamatas wrote a post to prove that what he inferred must be what Sanders had implied, and others, including Patrick Nielsen Hayden, agreed with him.

And, to my shame, so did I. In a comment at Making Light, I wrote:

The Cherokee do have a problem with racism. They were slave traders. A Cherokee chief, Stand Watie, was the last Confederate general to surrender. More recently, the Cherokee voted to exclude the descendants of their black slaves from the tribe (and the tribe’s gambling wealth), even though many of those people were culturally Cherokee, living the life and speaking the language.

On the other hand, Sanders is just a racist.*

In the modern sense that race equals ethnicity.

I don’t remember writing anything else about the case at the time. It didn’t interest me. I couldn’t know that it would be the Mexican-American War to Racefail 09’s Civil War.

Like everyone who played more-literary-than-thou with Sander’s hasty note, I assumed he was a racist because I ran the text through my assumptions. No one can be more wrong than smart people who think they read subtext infallibly—they’re the literary world’s equivalent of fundamentalists who see Satan’s hand guiding the pen of nonbelievers.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in Mamatas’s explication de texte was treating the text like a polished document, so he obsessed over agreement and ignored context. To be fair to him, he didn’t have the full context. Like everyone else, he only had the note, and he fancied himself the Racistfinder General. But it’s also true that Mamatas, then editor of Clarkesworld, was hardly an unbiased interpreter. As Sanders notes in “Conversations With A Mean Old Bastard”, Helix had been nominated for a Hugo and Clarkesworld had not, so the “poor fucker probably was wild with jealousy.”

In another popular denunciation of Sanders, Tobias Buckell wrote:

...the various stages of calling someone with a prejudice or racist belief or action out are very similar to the Kubler-Ross model of catastrophic loss.

Denial: * Example—”I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening.”

Anger: * Example—”Why me? It’s not fair!” “NO! NO! How can you accept this!”

Bargaining: * Example—”Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out? A few more years.”

Depression: * Example—”I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die . . . What’s the point?”

Acceptance: * Example—”It’s going to be OK.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

Buckell’s right that some people accept the worldview of those who abuse them—the FBI concluded that 27% of hostages show some degree of Stockholm Syndrome. But for people who have a worldview that’s incompatible with Critical Race Theory, these are the more common stages:

Denial: “WTF?”

Amusement: “Are these people really that crazy?”

Bargaining: “Okay, they are that crazy, but we got along in the past. Let’s try to get along again, okay?”

Anger: “Keep your crazy cult beliefs to yourself!”

Rejection: “Fuck. This. Shit. I’m gone.”

Sanders raced through those five steps with the warriors baying at his heels. First he wrote:

Certain people, in response or sympathy to the things being said about me, have requested that their stories be deleted from the Helix archives.

Wait, wait; this was originally MY suggestion. One person, whose excellent work had graced the pages of Helix on two occasions, had voiced such strong sentiments that I wrote to her and, among other things, offered to delete her stories from the archives if she felt that way about it. She replied at first in the negative, but later changed her mind; but anyway, I want to make it clear that this began as an offer that I made.

I made it to only that one person, and I confess it did not occur to me that anyone else would make a similar request; but a couple more did.** Their requests have been honored as well.

But I have been informed that there are other Helix authors who are also participating in the slagfest, in private venues; and perhaps there are others as well who while not openly falling in with the lynch mob, still share the basic sentiment.

So I would like to publicly announce that if there is ANYBODY who wants his/her/etc. story removed from the Helix archives as well, a written (emailed) request to me—not Lawrence, not Melanie—will be honored.

(That is speaking strictly of archived stories. Anything in the current issue will stay there, as per contract, for the duration of the quarter.)

But it’s not fair for Melanie to have to keep fucking with this; she’s already had a hell of a lot of extra work handed her because of it. So this offer is not going to remain open indefinitely. Speak up within a reasonable time—such time to be determined entirely by my caprice; tough shit if you don’t like it—or forever shut your pie-hole.

I should add that if anyone feels strongly enough to want to return the money they were paid, we will not accept it; I suggest donating it to Obama’s campaign instead. However, so far nobody has made any such offer, and I don’t seriously expect it.

PLEASE SPREAD THIS AROUND. For this one occasion, everyone—that includes the lurkers too—has my formal permission to quote the entire text of this message, starting with the 5th paragraph above. (Preceding text being of no relevancy or interest outside this ng.) In fact I’d appreciate it. I want the word out.

What I don’t want is some damn fool coming around a month from now with “I didn’t know! Nobody told me!”

So if you agree with the Sanders Whiners, you’ll be doing your cause a service by getting this out. And if you don’t, then you’ll be doing US a service by helping speed the process so Melanie can put all this extra work behind her.

The certain person was N. K. Jemisin. Yoon Ha Lee also took up the offer, and Sanders told her:

Certainly I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.

And there were more flames. “Non-Caucasian” was deemed racist even though it was used by a man no one could mistake for Caucasian.

When Jemisin’s, Lee’s, and Margaret Ronald’s stories were removed, Sanders put this notice on the web pages where they had been: “Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.”

That joke was deemed sexist, perhaps because feminists are not supposed to wear panties. Maybe it’s an expression that social justice fandom doesn’t know—Sarah Palin once told Chris Christie not to get his panties in a wad, and no one attacked her for being sexist.

Soon after that, Sanders wrote:

Why should you have to do all this extra work for nothing, just so some silly people can make a big grandstand play to impress their bloggy pals with the Correctness of their convictions?

I am hereby making a change to the aforestated offer. Effective as of now, any Helix contributor who wants his/her work deleted from the archives will have to pay for the privilege. Specifically, it’ll cost you forty bucks, payable to Melanie.

Though Sanders had said the offer to take stories down would not remain open indefinitely, that created the next uproar as people quibbled over the principle and the price. Sanders then canceled the chance to pay to have a story removed:

All right, that’s it. It’s been long enough; there’s been ample opportunity for anyone else who felt soiled by the contact with Helix to step up and speak up and pay up.

I don’t believe there are going to be any others (the imposition of cash charges seems to have had a distinctly damping effect) but if there are, tough shit. You had your chance and you didn’t take it.

That fall, Sanders shut down Helix. Sometime later, he wrote “Conversations With A Mean Old Bastard.” I recommend reading it all, but for people in a hurry, here are a few important questions it answers:

While social justice fandom was never far from their keyboards, Sanders was offline for days. What was he doing during this time and why was he so harsh to Yoon Ha Lee?

I’d been on a bike in the wind and the heat for days, and I hadn’t slept well the previous night. And worse than everything else put together, I’d visited my wife at the hospital in Norman, where she’d been for a year and a half, on my way home, and found out that her condition had taken a new and extremely disturbing turn for the worse. 

And here was this message by another Helix writer, wanting in on the offer I’d made to Nora; and a look down the list showed me a couple more—and at that point I blew up. Here I’d tried to give a special break to one of my favorite Helix authors, and it was turning into a fucking exodus! It was just too much. 

So, yes, I was pretty brutal in what I said to Yoon Ha Lee. Of course I didn’t mean what I said about her story, or my reasons for accepting it; I was just saying that stuff in order to hurt her feelings, because I was in a hell of a lot of pain myself and she’d pushed me over what little edge I had left. 

Yeah, I admit it, I was too rough on Yoon Ha Lee, and it’s unfair that she got the full blast for what four people had done. And I don’t offer the above as justification—but then I don’t feel any need to justify myself. I had nothing against Yoon Ha Lee, but she had, after all, asked for it. Not that there was anything rude or offensive in her message, but she’d chosen to side with the people who were giving me shit, and you know, when you go fucking with somebody you have to accept that there may be consequences. I’m a normal person; when you hit at me, I hit back, and if at all possible I’ll hit hard enough to discourage you from doing that again. 

(I said I was a Christian. I never claimed to be a good one. I used to feel bad about this until I realized that trying to be like Jesus was presumptuous.) 

There’s another thing, too—I was being attacked by a God-damned hysterical mob. I had all these dipshits coming at me from all over, screaming their hate; they’d been at it for a week or more and getting crazier all the time. When the wire is down and the Claymores have all been fired and your forward positions are being overrun, it’s time to go to full auto and blow the shit out of everything that comes at you. Yoon Ha Lee, or anybody else who chose to be part of that mob—or side with them—was, as far as I’m concerned, asking for it.

What did he mean by “sheet head”?

“Sheet head” is, of course, a rather crude play on “shithead.” Obviously it refers to people who are known (stereotypically, and incorrectly) for wearing textile head coverings—and indeed requiring their women to do so. Therefore it should be obvious that “sheet head” refers to a Muslim who is a shithead. More exactly, to a Muslim who acts like a shithead in the name of his religion.

Consider, for example, the young thugs who have assaulted non-Muslim women on the streets of European cities for dressing in ways they considered “immodest.” Obviously they were acting like shitheads; but “terrorist” would be too strong a term. Or the “religious police” of Iran and Saudi Arabia; no one would deny that they are shitheads of purest ray serene—well, no one but another shithead—but what they do isn’t what is usually meant by terrorism.

Or the gibbering whackjobs who demonstrated in the streets of Europe because of a few cartoons in a Danish newspaper; it would be a great exaggeration to call them terrorists, but they certainly were being shitheads.

Was the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas an act of terrorism? No, but it certainly was one of the most spectacularly shitheaded acts of the sheet heads.

So no, I never have used the term—which I’ve been using for years—to refer to Muslims in general, but I’ve never restricted it to terrorists alone, either. And never claimed that was what I meant in that email.

...Of course I’ve made derogatory remarks about certain Muslims, but then so has everybody, even other Muslims. And I’ve been known to make derogatory remarks about the Muslim religion, but that’s entirely different. Religions are fair game in my book—a religion is nothing but a set of opinions, after all, and what’s wrong with ridiculing somebody’s opinions? I’ve said plenty about Christianity, too, and I’m a Christian, even if I don’t always act like it. 

Which brings up another point: I also use the expression “Jeebus Nazi” to refer to Christians who behave like shitheads—the exact equivalent of “sheet heads”—and none of these PC geeks have ever complained about that.

Was his language racist?

Racist? Of all the stupid things people have said during this affair, that has got to be one of the stupidest, but it’s been one of the most pervasive. Some of these people have the God-damnedest ignorant-ass ideas...Muslims aren’t a race, for God’s sake. Islam includes believers from all the major races. 

Of course I realize that “race” is nowadays quite commonly used to refer to ethnic groups, but incorrectly so. “Race” simply refers to a set of genetically transmissible characteristics producing certain physical differences, distinctive but not enough so as to constitute a separate species. For example, the familiar “Baltimore” and “Bullock’s” orioles, formerly considered distinct species, are now classed merely as races of the Northern Oriole (Icterus galbula); likewise with the various races of the Northern Junco (Junco hyemalis) and so on. 

“Race” is a useful scientific term for classifying variations within an animal species—and people, in case you’ve forgotten, are animals. (Homo sapiens, a name devised in the days before blogs.) That some have used it for evil purposes doesn’t mean it has no validity. If we get rid of every word that some shithead has used for evil purposes, we’ll be reduced to gestures and grunts. Which in the case of some of the Blogtrotters would be an improvement, but—

...All the same, if any Muslims were offended, they never said anything to me about it, or to anybody I know. Not this time, not back in ‘06 when this first came up, not when we published Janis Ian’s “Mahmoud’s Wives”—not so much as an indignant email. All the shit that came our way was from PC Westerners. If that surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Did this result in the closing of Helix?

Actually we decided when we first started out that we’d go for two years, which would have ended with the spring issue; but then it looked as if we had a shot at a Hugo nomination, so we decided to go ahead and finish out this year. 

Of course the Blogtrotters don’t believe that; they’re convinced that they brought down the Evil Empire with their hooting and turd-flinging. But I’d point out that earlier this year, before this shit started, I’d already announced that I was only going to take a very few more submissions, and that was why.

Several years before the incident Sanders calls “sheet storm”, he announced his retirement, then wrote at least three more stories. On his site’s bibliography, he says about a story written after his retirement, “I said I’d retired; I didn’t say I’d quit. This one insisted on being written.” Sometimes artists announce their retirement when they think they’re done, and then the muse returns. If not for social justice fandom’s sheetstorm, who knows what other stories might’ve insisted on being written? If editing Helix had continued to be fun, who knows whether he and his friends might’ve decided to keep it going?

Well, there’s never much point in playing “what if”, for all that it’s a literary game Sanders and I have loved. The social justice posse decided an old Indian wasn’t acting white enough for them, so William Sanders has ridden into the sunset.