Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lovecraft, Defoe, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This contains politics again, but also discussion of fantasy fiction. Fear not, this is not becoming a political blog! Some things are important, and sometimes thoughts on fiction and the real world intersect. This is one of those times.

The HPL bust won by
For those not in the know, the World Fantasy Convention annuals gives the World Fantasy Award to a distinguished work of fantasy literature from the previous year. Up through this year (but no longer!) the award took the physical shape of a bust of early twentieth-century horror writer HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft is tremendously influential in the world of horror fiction but also, in both his personal life AND in his work, horrifically racist, even by the standards of his time. 

After winning the WFA, African-American writer Nnnedi Okorafor shared the following poem of Lovecraft's from 1912 as a shockingly blatant example (you should read Okorafor's words on the topic here; as both a WFA winner herself and a Nigerian-American writer she is far more qualified to speak on the topic than I):

by H. P. Lovecraft

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Not someone whom we should choose to honor, and racist even by the standards of the early twentieth century. What's nearly as bad to me, the main theme within Lovecraft's fiction is fear of the outsider. Not only are the most famous of his creations otherworldly creatures barely comprehensible to (and completely inimical to) us humans, Paired with the author's racism, we are left with an oevre  focused on protecting "our people" from "others". To read Lovecraft uncritically is to exercise that part of ones mind which seeks out the familiar and sees anything foreign as not only incomprehensible, but dangerous and degenerate.

Yes, Lovecraft was influential. I see his influence in much the same way I see that of Daniel Defoe; both cast long shadows, the works of both are important historical artifacts. Both stand - to one extent or another - as works of art. Both are also dreadfully problematic and contain major themes far outside the way we would like to think today. They are to be read, respected for what they added to culture, but not honored uncritically.

This brings us to recent events. Last week the city of Paris suffered several terrorist attacks, which seem to have been carried out by French and Belgian nationals with ties to the Syrian militant group ISIS. The response here in America was the same response our own Lovecraft would have made: keep the others out. In this case, it served not only as an pretext to halt our policy of accepting Syrian refugees, many of whom are fleeing the very terrorists claiming responsibility for this action, but it also escalated already high levels of rhetoric against Muslims. Much has been made of the parallel between refusing to accept Syrian refugees now and refusal to accept European refugees on the eve (and in the early days of) the second World War, including the following official statement by the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial:

WASHINGTON, DC—Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.  
The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.
I say that today's response, tragically and shamefully, is well within certain aspects of our historical character. It's the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow and, yes, the legacy of Lovecraft. To not only accept such works unquestionably but also to honor them is to embrace this part of our legacy. There's no proof that Syrian refugees are any more dangerous than anyone else, or at all responsible for acts of terror. Yet they look different. They speak differently. They worship the same god as most of us in a slightly different way. Their culture is different.

Lovecraft knew. Different is scary. It's what he continues to teach us.
Are we, today in the twenty-first century, the same people we were a hundred years ago, when we saw those from other continents as half-human degenerates? Are we the same as we were two centuries before that, when we saw non-Europeans as savages over whom we needed to take our rightful dominion? Is this who we choose to be?

Part of the choices in who we are is who we choose to honor, how we choose to honor them. Yes, Lovecraft was an interesting prose sylist (once he got past his early adjective-laden career phase) and created some memorable imagery which casts a long shadow on the horror fiction genre. He was also a racist and a xenophobe. Is this a legacy we should choose to honor uncritically? 

It is not what I choose. It is shameful that it took a half-decade after Okorafor's personal essay for the World Fantasy Award for the bust to change. It's shameful that our first impulse is still to fear those other than ourselves.

It is shameful that it is 2015 and we are not yet better than this.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

On Welders and Philophers, Certification and Education

Warning: This post contains politics.

Last week I engaged in an interesting discussion across several blog posts with Mark Coxon and Gary Kayye regarding the CTS (certified technical specialist for those not in the know) certification from Infocomm, the audiovisual industry trade group. It was an interesting conversation on what certifications mean, why we seek them, how they can be better valued or made use of. I was quite ready to put this discussion to bed and move on when I saw this statement from Presidential hopeful March Rubio:

"Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers"

I'll set aside my grammatical pet peeve about allegedly educated adults not knowing the difference between "less" and "fewer"; as less and less value is given to education as an end to itself, fewer and fewer people will take the effort to make this distinction. What struck me most is that Mr. Rubio sees education as a whole as akin to a certification process; education is the process of learning how to do something which will earn one the most money. In this context, it is quite easy to measure the value of education: see what graduates earn, see what it costs to get a degree, compare. It's the same process by which one would measure ones investment in a mutual fund.

It's also a poor and reductive way to look at such things.

In the title I mentioned Dr. Carson. There's no question that Carson is a bright man with as impressive a set of educational and professiona, credentials as one could expect: Yale, University of Michigan,  and, finally, Johns Hopkins where he served as the head of neurosurgery. What fascinates  - and terrifies - me is that a man with such an obvious education can hold bizarre, couterfactual beliefs:
  • President Obama was born in Africa
  • The earth is 6000 years old.
  • The Great Pyramids of Egypt were built for the purpose of grain storage.

The last one is truly head-scratching, and pretty much wilfully ignores literally everything we know about the pyramids except for the fact that they are large and located in Egypt. How can an educated man think this way? I know because, a long time ago, I was on the path to that sort of education.

My education wasn't to be in medicine, but electrical engineering. The school to which I went was small, selective, and very technology-heavy. We studied math. We studied science. We studied chemistry. And, each semester, we took one humanities course. One. As a freshman, it was a two-part "Western Civilization" survey. That's right, all of "Westery Civilization" in one year. History. Literature. And, yes, philosophy. One. Year. After that, there was a requirement for one elective. That was it. If one had to design an education to create the kind of stereotypically anti-social, narrowly focused technologist-nerd completely lost in the larger society one could do no better. I wasn't the greatest student and never graduated, but it was the parts of an education which I was never offered that I missed most and have, on and off, been chasing through my adult life. It's been poetry, it's been literature, it's been philosophy. Yes, I'm glad to have learned the math I did, but that is, as I say about technical ideas, just "stuff".  

What have  gained since trying to broaden my education? I feel that I can think better and more broadly. I can understand people who think differently than I do, and why. In the realm of literature, I read more mindfully and learn more from a good book and, I hope, can communicate more and better in my own writing. More to the point - and this is a harder thing for which to find a metric - it's bought an element of joy and pleasure to my life as well as some much-needed depth. I see knowing more as an end in and of itself, and one which I hope to continue to pursue throughout my life. I only wish I'd had more of the foundation sooner.

I've gained a measure of humility in seeing the very edges of the depth and rigor of thought which lie behind various worldviews. Philosophy is not just the caricature of robed figures in an ivory tower gazing into their navels; it encompasses many schools of thought which I accept that I'll never have the time to deeply understand. That doesn't stop me from reaching for, at the very least, a broader appreciation. 

My technical education, of course, is also a life-long project. The difference is that this is results-oriented as much as concept oriented; I need to know what IGMP protocols are so I can design network-based audio-video systems. I educate myself on arts so I'll be happy (and yes, I've neglected that over the past months; time gets in the way, but it's a luxury on which I should spend more time). 

People like Rubio, on the other hand,  see only the technical "certification" part of education: as a means to an end and naught else. That is valuable, but it is not the highest and best use of higher education. I'd even argue that it isn't even the best use of primary and secondary education; we've become so fixated on STEM, on economics, on winning the next big tech race that we don't pay enough attention to know the destination to which we're racing. 

The irony? Rubio is talking about how to allocate scarce resources, what skills and knowledge we should value, how one should live ones life. These questions are, at their heart, philosophical. What's more, his beloved welder is, by casting a ballot, going to be making these choices for all of us. In a democracy we don't merely need philsophers, and we don't merely need welders; we need welder-philosophers, versed in the theory and practice of how to think about such things. We need philosophers to help us learn to navigate an ever changing world, and answer the big questions of what it means to live a fulfilled life. We need artists and writers to make the journey worth living. 

We do not live on bread alone. 

This is not "The Treachery of Images"
I'll close with an anecdote: one of my very well-respected colleagues was shopping online for a present for himself: an art print. When I asked what, he gave a guarded "I'm going to have to explain this" look and told me it was a print of a painting my Magritte called "Treachery of Images". Fortunately, I was aware of it and we were able to even discuss it a bit; it's an interesting statement about what art it, what communication is. A thousand-word restating, perhaps, about the aphorism about the finger pointing at the moon. Can I draw a line between his appreciation for surrealist art and his creative and sharp thinking in technical matters? Perhaps I can, perhaps not. Either way, it is a small thing which enriches his life. 

Yes, we need welders and mechanics and brain surgeons. We also need artists, philosophers, and those who appreciate them.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Eighteenth - The End

A sweet little deal with the devil story.

Inspiration slightly from Goethe, but mostly from the Simpsons. 


"The End"

It's near the end now, now question. And I'd have had a good run were it not for the constant fear.

I thought I was smart. I hadn't asked for incomparable wealth, to be king of the world, anything like that. Just a full life, health for my wife and children, comfort. What we had didn't seem like much out of the ordinary; the house with the white picket fence, two kids who grew into healthy adults themselves, jobs that were fulfilling and challenging enough without being a grind.

A few years after work ended to enjoy ourselves and eachother, living out the rest of our years as empty nesters, still always learning, exploring hobbies, still engaged. The one thing I'd failed to wish for was health for our pets, but they did OK; we always had cats living in the house and the heartache as they passed on always healed. I wish they'd lived forever, but they, too, had full lives.

And now it's almost over. 

I read a great deal in my later years, and took solace in the number who tricked the devil himself, who left with their souls intact. Even Faust himself ascended to heaven at the end. 

And now it's ended. 

My modern trip to hell is like a long elevator ride, far past the sub-sub-sub basement. As it travels I feel younger, feel the years and decades fading as I recede from the world.

I wrack my brain for a loophole, but can't think of one. Ah well... at least my family enjoyed the comforts I wished for them.

Soon it will be over.

At long last the door opens. 

I see dark shapes moving in the halflight, at knee level. Demons? Devils? The crawl about on all fours, their motions smooth and predatory.

Cats. Sleek, healthy, young housecats.

Ever pet I've ever lost and buried.
They languorously wander about, rubbing against eachother. One enters the elevator, rubs against my leg. 

Now I feel claws on my back as one jumpclimbs up by spectral body, leaving deep scratches before it alights on my shoulder. The elevator fills with small furry bodies. My soul now intact, the elevator door closes and heads back upward.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Seventeenth - The Girl in the Lake


No commentary on this one; I much like this image, and might return to this with some more detail. 

"The Girl in the Lake"

You don't know to use the word ritual, but that's what your trip to the lake is.

Every day you endure the words.

You're ugly.
You're stupid.
You're worthless.

So every afternoon in what you don't know to call a ritual but most certainly is you walk to the river.

The other you is waiting there, on the otherside of the water, looking sadly up at you, tears welling up in her eyes.

You turn your head, not able to look directly at her, but you see her there, watching you through the corner of her eyes which are yours. 

And there at the river, in what you don't know to call a ritual, you pass along all the small cruelties. After all, there's not meant for you, not for meek, quiet, calm you. They're meant for the girl in the river.

You half-whisper:
"Why can't you be more like your brother?"
"You're useless."
"You're just like your mother."

She always does her part, in what you don't know to call a ritual, staying the whole time, as meek as you are, until you walk slowly away from the river. 

You wonder where she goes when you're gone, what the world is like across the river, but you don't wonder for long. After all, you can return from the lake, quietly, to gather another day's worth of petty hatreds for the girl in the lake. 

Until one day, in what you never knew to be a ritual, you blink and find yourself looking up, looking through the calm water,  up at her face backlit by the sun and unreadable.

You feel the weight of all the petty cruelties you've cast into the water dragging you down and away, as she turns and walks away, looking as meek as you but hardened by years underwater. 

You tell yourself that you'll meet her eyes when she returns, but you never get the chance.

You fade, reflecting nothing but the angry-red sun, pain wearing smooth like a river-stone, 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Sixteenth - At Sea

Again, the sea-witch. I adore the sea-witch. I'd like to do more with this, and with her. It's an interesting topic.

This one is just a fragment, and I don't much care for it. I'll perhaps return to the image later.

"Fragments of a Dialog At Sea"

There was a surge of interest, about 25 years ago now, but that faded. It was the wrong kind of interest anyway; men (almost all men) thinking they'd slay the big bad monster of the deep.

Oh, not much interest. After all, it was told as a children's story and who takes them seriously? Nobody but the children.

The children are a bit older now and some of them have looked out to the sea. It's the sensitive ones, the dreaming ones, the ones who never learned to stop taking stories seriously. Some of you started lookat the older tellings of the tales, to try to drink in the truth. 
Some of you don't bother.

You talk about duress and trickery and unholy power, but you don't really believe that, do you? 

Do you?

No, you think I'm a monster because I'm fat, because I have tentacles instead of legs, because I've found comfort and a home in the dark places far from where you live, in the places you fear.

Anyway, it isn't that lonely out here. After all, I still have her voice. I sometimes use it to whisper into the pulsingbright veins of light your people have stretched across the seabed. It's how I lure men here still, now that ships have gone all automatic.

Oh, you didn't think I still had it? That's what you get for reading the children's version of the story.

I gave her something much, much better. I could give you the same.

Or not.

I am, after all, the sea.  And I can be fickle.

And you no longer amuse me.

Don't worry. You'll get another chance.

The stories don't say it, but I'm fair. I give people what they need. And what you need most of all now is to start over.

May the taste of saltwater remind you of your failings.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fifteenth - Girls' Armor.

We've reached the midpoint! Don your armor - boys' or girls' - and read on.

"Girls' Armor"

Girls's armor is different from boys' armor.

I  learned that at a very young age from the covers of the books Dad leaves on the coffee table, but also from the clothes Mom buys us. It's why parents with a boy/girl set of identical twins don't do the matchy-matchy game; boys have to learn to wear boy armor, girls to wear girl armor.

He got little miniature Timberland knock-offs. I got mary janes and white socks. Always the black Mary Janes, except the times they were purple. We don't talk about the white ones.

It was the black ones I wore the year of the fairy infestation.  My eyes were still young enough and innocent enough to see them, but still I towered over them; the fey are cruel and, in their way, powerful, but small. They hid under the forscythia bush, they hid in the wildtallgrass against the back fence, they hid in the privacy hedge between our yard and the neighbors' (old man Hiller and family, always the first to bring their trash cans to the curb, and always trimming those hedges with near-military precision. Still, there were always hiding spots beneath).

We couldn't always see them, but they'd whip us with brambles as we ran through the ragged weeds into the grassy area beneath the powerlines, they'd throw clouds of dirt and mud at us, pelt us with tiny rocks. And we'd run and brandish sticks and laugh, and our laughter would drive them off, back to whence they came.

And I fought wearing my girls' armor, he in his boys' armor.

Sometimes at the end of the day I'd roll my sock down just a bit, revealing the softwhite skin creased from the pressure of wearing socks all day, but unmarred by the dust and dirt and debris. That little ring of skin beneath the armor, unscratched and unharmed. He in his boys' armor never had that layer of dust and brambles and scratches go so far along his skin; the hardened faux-leather and tall athletic socks keeping his legs clean and pure. He wore boys armor, and it protected him, coddled him.

We beat the infestation, because kids always win. It's a rule. We didn't eliminate all the fairies, because battles never truly end. That's also a rule. 

When summer came, I swam in a belly-baring two piece suit, the bottom part of which covered little more than underwear. Girls' armor.

He wore mid-calf shorts and a swim-shirt. Boys' armor.

It was as if Thetis had chosen to swaddle her son first, before anointing him in that faithful river, and annointed her daughter completely nude, tossing the tiny body freely into the flowing rapids before snatching it out.

Because we love our boys more, they never grow a hardened skin.

Boys learn to wear boys armor, and grow up fragile and weak. They can't see the fey anymore, but we all know that they still linger, still throw barbs and darts from hidden corners. Those of us who'd worn boys' armor all our lives will feel the pricks on delicate pale skin, the prickles drawing them slowly to anger.

It's why men are so quick to rage. Now that we can't see the fey we can't really fight them anymore. So I put on my woman's armor, knowing that my bare ankles have been toughened by a lifetime as a girl.

An d someday, when my children grow to challenge the monsters I'd not slayed, I shall array them both in girls' armor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fourteenth - A Lifetime Later

This is not really a prompt which spoke to me, but I managed to wrestle something out of it.

The stories appear to be getting darker as the month wears on. Enjoy!


"A Lifetime Later"

Sometimes you go back.

It's not "back", not really. After all, they replaced most of the building. How could they not? Even if not the practical matter of damage, there's the memory.
There are ghosts.

So you go back to visit them. Never on open school nights, never when classes are in session. You visit as you did when you were a kid, when you could climb a tree overgrown too close to a fence, slip through a carelessly open window, and wander halls empty and deserted. It felt otherworldly at times like that. It felt like somethign from a dream, or a story.

So you slip through, into the past.

The new building rests on the same foundation.

You remember that you were mad that day. There had again been too much homework, you'd again not done it. It had been a bright autumn day, the kind for riding bikes and running through the yard. Not the kind for homework. It wasn't fair.

So, you were mad. Mike had shoved you on the way out at recess, and Stacy, she of the long black hair and bright blue eyes, Stacy had laughed. Your ears and face burned hot, your stomach tightened. You remember tears coming to your eyes, the chant of "baby". You remember that part. It's the last time you'd ever felt that.

You don't remember much more, but you remember that day.

You already had the trick of being places you shouldn't, of finding secret paths into the muskywet basement room behind the boiler, with the faint scent of oil and mildew.

You remember the smell.

You remember, because it sometimes helped you, whispering your hate into the cool cinderblock walls. Whispering your anger.

You hate Michael.
You hate Stacy.
You're not a baby.

Not a baby.

You don't know how they say the fire started,  but that doesn't matter. You know you called it. You know that whatever spirit lived in the building answered.

You didn't see the bodies of the younger kids, kindergarten kids, carried out, but you'd learn later.

Learn that Michael and Stacy were near the door and among the first to escape.

And learn that your body, hidden behind the boiler, would be the last found. That your parents would pin sad, hopeful fliers to lampposts, that even after they found you your mother would secretly hold out hope that you'd gotten out, that it was a mistake, that it was some other dead kid that looked like you.

And so, you go back sometimes. More often once your parents finally cleared out your room, finally moved away.

It is, after all, the only place that feels familiar, even if it is rebuild and nothing but the foundation remains.

When you see the ghosts of the kindergarten kids you tell them you're sorry, but they don't seem to understand. They just cry and cry for mothers who have long since moved on with their lives.

So you leave them and lurk beneath the shiny new building, beside a new boiler not yet smelling of spilled oil and rust, whispering to whatever spirits live within the walls that they were wrong.

That you're still mad.

That you've not forgiven them.