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.