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.  

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