Charlottesville, American Fascism, & White Supremacy

While I generally try to avoid political or real world cultural issues posts here, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA deserve, I think, some commentary. I waited on writing this, and posting it, to fully gather my thoughts and response to the situation. Even so, this may ramble a bit, my apologies in advance. First, despite a certain “world leader’s” claim, there were no “many sides” and the situation was clear cut. The situation is always clear cut when neo-Nazis and white supremacists are involved and there are always only two sides: neo-Nazis/Supremacists & everyone else. There really is no middle ground here. I’m the first to argue against oversimplifying and dichotomies, but, in this case, there are only the two and it really is that simple. Claims of equivalency between the neo-Nazis/Supremacists and the antifa/BLM movement are false; the former use violence against people simply because of their skin color or for being Jewish in order to kill or intimidate, the latter use violence less often, but do so to protect people of all races & creeds from being beaten or killed. Regardless, the default state should always be Nazis = bad, no “buts”, no “what abouts”, no excuses. Nazis always = bad.

A little semi-digression.

My paternal grandfather was the child of Polish immigrants. He was an irreverent Catholic. He was not, to my knowledge, especially political. He was known to occasionally indulge in what can euphemistically be called “ethnic humor”. I never heard him raise his voice in anger (it probably happened, but I don’t ever recall it). He was also an NCO in the U.S. Army MPs during the occupation of Germany after WWII. In this role, he sometimes escorted Nazi officers, particularly SS officers, to their trials. Occasionally, in the process, he shot at, or ordered others to shoot at, Nazis. Keep in mind, the second largest ethnic population sent to the concentration camps was the Poles, possibly some of his relatives. I can only imagine what he’d think of the events in Charlottesville and those on the American Right who stood up for Neo-Nazis.

(To Head off Objections: No, people who fought in the Korean War did not fight communists or Marxists. They fought fascist oligarchs. The same holds for the entire Cold War. Cuba? Military dictatorship. Yes, they called themselves communists, but they weren’t any more than I’m a Catholic, no matter what I may choose to call myself.)

Back to the main point.

The central element of white supremacy, and really the neo-Nazis, is this idea that they are somehow “defending White Culture”. However, “White Culture” (or “White European Culture”) is a myth. There is no such thing. There are many white, European cultures, not a single unified one. A culture involves traditions and tangibles, ex. food & attire. “White Culture” lacks both. Rather, there is Irish culture, German culture, Romanian culture, Canadian culture, etc. The argument that says, “If White Culture is racist, then so is Black Culture” is another false equivalency. In the U.S., if you ask a white person (or Asian or Latinx) what country (or countries) their family originated in, they can probably tell you. Ask the same question of a black individual and the majority are unable to say, because it’s impossible to tell unless their families immigrated in the 20th century or later. Thus, “Black Culture” or “African-American Culture” is not equivalent to “White Culture”, it is equivalent to saying Irish culture or Vietnamese culture or Puerto Rican culture.

That brings to mind another thing I keep hearing: “Let’s get rid of the prefixes, we’re all Americans.” I have two problems with this. First, no one ever says this when a white guy identifies as Irish-American or German-American. The prefixes only seem to be a problem for certain people when they’re used by someone who is black (African-American) or brown (Mexican-American, etc.). Second, those prefixes are an important part of our American culture, a reminder that we are a hybrid culture, a multicultural society, Frankensteinian if you will. In the States, it’s difficult to find anyone, except a recent immigrant, whose lineage is entirely from one country. Virtually all of us are mixed something, e.g. multicultural. For example, I’m a mix of Polish (paternal) and Anglo-Scots-Irish (maternal). This also goes to cultural festivals. There are those who complain about “black pride” festivals or black history month, of course they say nothing about the country’s numerous Irish cultural festivals, celebration of Oktoberfest, etc.

On the whole, the States are an experiment on a number of levels. We’re not the first multicultural society in existence—Rome, China, India, Russia, and others beat us there—nor are we the oldest multicultural society is existence—again, see China, India, Russia. To think otherwise is sheer ignorance. But, we’re, most of us, trying very hard to make it successful despite elements of our society that wish to sabotage society.

Laws: What Are They Good For?

I have discussed worldbuilding with respect to laws somewhat in the past. But, it’s been on my mind again, whether due to primary world stuff or my current worldbuild. This time, though, the question that has been coming to mind is: What is the purpose of laws?

This is, I think, a multi-layered question.

On the one hand, laws are in place to allow society to function—after all, if anyone killed whoever they pleased, whenever, then society would collapse in moments. At the same time, it can be said that laws are in place to enforce or encode social morality. Certainly, we can develop some idea of a society’s sense of morality, or lack thereof, based on its legal code (although, given that morality is subjective and a sliding scale, this causes its own problems). Even so, we can get an idea of what the powers-that-be in a society say is moral or immoral. I say the powers-that-be here because there is ample evidence that those who enact legislation do not always reflect the desires or morals of the majority of the populace (see the historical legal versus popular views regarding interracial marriage in the U.S., traced back through at least the 1830s, during which time there were at least some “illegal” interracial unions among the working classes in Massachusetts, despite laws against such unions. Or the overwhelming support for LGBT unions in the U.S. today, that is being blocked by a small, yet vocal and politically powerful, minority.

Of equal, or greater, importance is the question of the core, underlying, purpose of laws. In other words, are laws meant to prevent or to punish.

This is a question that, I think, is important for cultures and dialogues in that it determines the cultural views of new laws and criminals. It can also be a source of cognitive dissonance.

To use a primary world example, opponents of gun control in the U.S. often claim “Criminals get their guns illegally, so gun control laws are pointless” (paraphrased). This claim clearly falls into the “laws are intended to prevent” category, and therefore if the law fails to prevent action, the law fails and is meaningless. This is a valid understanding on laws, to some extent. It is certainly an understandable one. To introduce the cognitive dissonance, though, many in the same group claim that the only way to prevent abortions is to make them illegal (a patently false end result, given history). Following the initial logic re: gun control, this would mean that anti-abortion laws should also be viewed as pointless, since they fail to prevent action.

On another hand, there is the view that laws are intended not to prevent action but, rather, to punish action. For example, we know that anti-theft laws have not driven shoplifting to extinction. However, the anti-theft laws do lay out the range of potential punishments for shoplifting. They say, “We know this happens. We find it unacceptable, so here’s what will happen if you do it.” This view is, I think, more nuanced in that it also creates a hierarchy of actions that society deems incorrect, e.g. the punishments the law lays out for shoplifting are significantly lighter than those the law sets for murder or treason, therefore shoplifting is deemed less unacceptable than murder or treason.

Personally, I think a synthesis of the two (and there may be others) is near reality. Laws intended to punish can have a side effect of prevention to a degree (e.g. the person chooses not to commit the action for fear of being caught and punished). By and large, though, I think most of the world’s laws are written primarily with punishment, not prevention, in mind. Prevention is, I think, a secondary thought or a happy byproduct of the punishment in many minds That could also be due to human nature and the nature of most of our societies, that we are happier to punish or have a vengeance streak (which does seem to be the case).

Anyway, just some thoughts for potential worldbuilding and general consideration.

Observations: Enjoy Working on a College Campus

I recently read a post about some hate filled mail a fellow blogger received. Reading the post got me thinking about the last month or so at work. My conclusion: there are a great many things I like about working on a college campus (and wish I could continue doing so, if that whole eating, paying bills, etc. thing wasn’t an issue). So, in the last month, I have:

 1) chatted about meditation with a psychology student of unknown faith, including Buddhist, Sufi, Zen, Christian, and secular methods (for a philosophy paper).

 2) discussed pirates and ISIS with a Somali Muslim student (someone else started the conversation somehow, I came in for the tail end; all parties reached the same conclusion).

 3) discussed the Epic of Gilgamesh with an Ethiopian Muslim student, including the dangers of applying modern monotheistic biases to interpreting ancient polytheist stories and cultures (particularly regarding the essential nature of divinity; for a history paper).

 4) worked with an Israeli Jewish student and Palestinian Muslim student back to back, with them chatting amiably between sessions (turned out they were classmates, knew each other, and worked together often in class; composition classes).

 5) discussed the Iliad and Greek mythology with a Hindu doctor (MD; after looking over his philosophy paper).

 6) discussed early Christian philosophy (Augustine, Aquinas) with a student of unknown faith.

 7) worked with students from: various states in the U.S., China, Korea, Iran, Palestine, Israel, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, Jamaica, and parts of Eastern Europe.

And before that, two of my more memorable class moments and students:

 1) A Sikh student from India who was just plain awesome to talk to before and after class (upper level composition class).

 2) A Christian (?) Marine vet fresh back from Afghanistan. There, he was involved in combat missions for the majority of his tour. He was also the first person in the class to speak up against disinformation regarding Islam and atheism, defending both repeatedly and respectfully (composition 1 class).

Gun Control Myth: De-Bunked

Since my state’s legislature just passed a bill to arm teachers in public schools, I’ve been thinking about gun control a lot lately (as a citizen, parent, and educator).

The political right-wing in the U.S. would have us believe that all pro-gun control liberals: a) fear guns and b) don’t understand guns.

Now, even leaving aside the thousands (or more) of veterans and current military who favor gun control, this is blatantly false. I’ll use myself as the case study in this case, since I can’t speak for the backgrounds of others.

I favor gun control and am strongly against arming teachers (or school administrators).

I have no fear of guns.

I understand them.

I’ve done target shooting before. It came easily to me. So easily that I got bored with it. Admittedly, this was with rifles and muskets, so rifled and smooth bore, not handguns (never used one, no real interest). Iron sights only, none of these fancy scopes. Roughly 100-200 feet to targets. Let’s say that were I stuck in the 18th or 19th century wilderness, I wouldn’t starve (might go hungry occasionally, but would not starve). Sure, my shooting’s probably atrophied a bit over the intervening years.

The point is, there was a time when I shot a fair bit. I understand guns and, at the time, could quickly compensate for an individual rifle’s quirks. I think they are fine in fiction, paintball, or Nerf dart form. But, I don’t like the real thing in reality. I have my reasons, and they are varied (addendum: a gun is not the only, or best, form of defense, should one need it).

I think the writers for Dean Devlin’s Leverage said it best:

Head Mook: “You said you don’t like guns.”
Eliot Spencer: “I don’t. Never said I couldn’t use ‘em.”

Hell With It: “Swearing”, Some Thoughts

I got involved in a brief discussion about the concept of “swearing” recently. The whole thing started with one person’s desire for the popular Facebook page “I F-ing Love Science” to change its name (to remove the “F-ing”). This got me thinking about a lot of things that had been percolating in my brain for a while. Here’s the result.

I put the term “swearing” in quotes because I don’t really believe in the concept as such.

First, there have been a number of psychological studies that indicate significant benefits from “swearing”. Psychology Today lists seven positive effects from pain relief to non-violent retribution, elevated endorphins to humor. Positive Psychology News builds on physical pain reduction.

There are cultural elements too. For instance, traveling in Ireland and England, I noticed a tendency among natives to use “swear” words regularly and naturally. I’ve noted their use occasionally when CSPAN airs sessions of Parliament. No one seems to bat an eye, it’s natural not scandalous, in my experience. In Russia, the Kremlin recently put in place a ban on “obscene language”. These particular words, mat, “helped the country survive the brutalities of Stalin-era slave labour camps, win over Nazi Germany in World War II and ride out the turbulence of the Soviet collapse, supporters say.” They were extremely useful for centuries in expressing views about the government and other issues.

In English, at least, virtually all “swear” words focus on bodily functions and sex. Demonizing the words may reinforce the message preached for centuries by Roman (and later Protestant) Christian hierarchy that the body and sex are dirty and bad.

And some claim that the words are used for “shock” value. Honestly, I think that effect died long ago, though it may move in cycles. Few contemporaries, if any, were shocked when Chaucer used “swyve” (the 14th century equivalent of “fuck”) or when Shakespeare throws out his word play on “ass”. In the 1950s, I suppose some folks would be shocked to hear the words. Personally, by third grade (in a Catholic school) I could out-swear the proverbial sailor. Ironically, proscribing their use actually adds to shock value. Making them non-proscribed, commonly used words, weakens the words and lessens their “shock” value. This is one reason I think the “shock” value is gone today.

But, that leaves the question: why proscribe certain words as “obscene” or “swears” and not others?

For the English speaking world, specifically the U.S., I think the answer lies in a mix of religion and classism. I’ll hit the latter first.

How often have we heard that those who “swear” are demonstrating a small vocabulary (e.g. lack of education)? That’s an inherently classist take, based on the old, pre-1940s days when only the upper class regularly attended post-secondary education and the middle class aspired to live like (their rose-tinted view of) the upper class. Shakespeare knew that “swears” were part of the language of the common people, the groundlings. That’s one reason he used them, to connect with the people who made up the majority of his audience. The same is, arguably, true of Chaucer and others.

Religion, specifically Catholicism and its children (Protestants), has had its effect too. Often the claim for a religious proscription of “swearing” is the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is a major stretch, I think, unless the Biblical deity is named after bodily functions or sex (which, as noted, make up the vast majority of “swear” words in most languages). What the commandment means is not to trivialize the deity’s name or commit blasphemy, it has nothing to do with alternate (commoner, peasant?) words for urine, sex, or feces.  This proscription is, I think, one of thought control, since words shape how we think and how we interact with the world and people around us.

Laws & Courts

Thinking about some current U.S. legislative debates, specifically abortion and gun control, I started considering the source of different positions. In reviewing the arguments presented by multiple sides, there seems to be a fundamental divide based on assumptions about the purpose of laws.

One position holds that laws exist to prevent activities. For example: laws against shoplifting are written to prevent shoplifting.

The other major position holds that laws exist to provide socially acceptable punishment for socially unacceptable behavior. For example: shoplifting laws exist not to prevent shoplifting, but rather to explain and limit what happens when one is caught shoplifting.

These are related to the assumptions that form the basis of courts: guilty until proven innocent (burden of proof lies with the defense) versus innocent until proven guilty (burden of proof lies with the prosecution).

All of which is tied to worldbuilding. How a culture sees the purpose of its laws, and how its courts work, can have a significant influence on the society as a whole. Media views of accused criminals and civil rights immediately come to mind. The foundational belief about the roles of laws even affects which laws are enacted. If the view is that laws are enacted to prevent actions, then there’s really little point to laws against violence or theft. If, on the other hand, the view is that laws exist to proscribe punishment for transgression, then many laws make more sense.

An Elf is an Elf. Of Course. Of Course. Or is it?

I wrote previously about the advantages of single species settings. This week, I’ll take the opposing point and look at having many species. Obviously, once a writer has determined how many sentient races will exist in a setting, there are a variety of pros and cons. I’ll hit what I think are the highlights.

The first consideration is: what races?

By this, I mean, will traditional Earth species be used (drawn from folklore, legend, and myth)? Or will traditional fantasy races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) be used? Or will they be entirely original races?

With the first two, there are some definite pros in that they’ll be immediately obvious to readers and won’t need major exposition about appearances, for instance. On the other hand, making them stand out can be more difficult. But, there are ways to do this. Consider Pratchett’s Elves, Rowling’s Goblins, Ilona Andrews’ vampires, Steven Brust’s “Elves” (Dragaerans), or Naomi Novik’s dragons.

In sci-fi at least, virtually all aliens are original to one degree or another. Sure there are bugs, cyborgs, robots, and catfolk in really broad terms, but nothing to the same degree as elves, dwarves, and halflings in fantasy. This obviously requires more time describing the species’ appearance initially.

Easily the most daunting thing about presenting a lot of races is developing cultures. We want developed cultures to know where characters in this new race are coming from. On the other hand, this need not be too daunting. After all, we do not need to create every race’s culture from the beginning. We can develop them as they appear in the story, at least beyond the window dressing role. Consider Star Wars and Star Trek. Based on the SW movies, what do we know about Wookiees, Ithorians (Hammerheads), Rodians, or Shistavanen wolfmen? These are four “core” SW races and we really don’t know anything about them until up to a decade or more after they appeared (many as window dressing or minor roles in the cantina scene). Likewise, from the show and movies, what do we know about Andorians, Gorn, or Rigellians until ST:TNG or Enterprise? Not much. Even Vulcans and Klingons are relatively undeveloped until later in the series. Additionally, I’m pretty certain Pratchett did not think, thirty years ago, about how he’d include orcs and igors in the Disc, but he did eventually.

There’s also another approach, one I’m exploring with my aspidochelone setting. Basically, this approach says there are potentially hundreds, thousands of races from a potentially infinite number of worlds. Therefore, there may several varieties of dwarves, elves, vampires, catfolk, ogres, etc. present, such that national culture overshadows any “racial” culture, particularly if said family of elves has been living in the area for many generations. Sure, some little traditions may remain, but if the community of immigrants (willing or accidental) was small then not much of the home culture may survive (look at strains of immigration to the U.S., particularly fourth generation or beyond). This also opens opportunities for multiple members of a race to display significantly different abilities and disabilities.