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Pity the Poor Latvians – The Feminist Wire

Pity the Poor Latvians

Steven Barnes, our welcomed guest contributer, is a professional writer, lecturer, coach and television writer, juggling the challenges between each and maintaining both a blog of reviews and critique as well as another dedicated to his work guiding people toward a more balanced life (www.diamondhour.com).  Mr. Barnes is a Hugo-nominated speculative fiction author, most often and happily landing in the “science fiction” and “fantasy” genres.  He has written 20 novels including Shadow Valley (2009), Lion’s Blood (2003) and Dream Park, published in 2010 and one of several novels co-authored with Larry Niven.

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I find myself irritated by the suggestion that one cannot look into a work of art and make judgments about the artist. Specifically, this comment arises often when a comment is made about a writer excluding or making negative images concerning women, gays or minorities. The same defenses arise about filmmakers, and probably playwrights and even graphic artists.

The common defense is that “he was creating for a bigoted audience.” Or “she was lampooning the attitudes of her time.

Well…maybe. Twain in Huckleberry Finn certainly is asking his audience to question their attitudes toward race. He does this by contrasting Huck’s assumptions with Jim’s actions and words. In other words, as God in the universe of his story, Twain gives Jim inwardness, a quality of humanity and intelligence separate from Huck’s (and the culture’s) assumptions.

Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind does not–her slaves are pretty much exactly what their masters–and Mitchell–think they are. Potatoes, solid all the way through. Simple creatures happy with their lot in life.

This rather noxious attitude, I think, slips into the recent “Never Let Me Go,” the movie about clones bred to provide organ transplants for their masters. Raised in the equivalent of English boarding schools, they are informed of this fact when about fifteen years old. Not one protests. Not one runs away. They are not supervised, really, and in later years given freedom of movement and opportunity to drive around the country and meet “normal people.” Not a single one refuses the burden. Not one has to be corrected, re-programmed, brought back in chains. None. One of them goes off and screams at one point. That’s it.

It is tempting to wonder if the artists, the writers and director, who are God in this world–shared attitudes with the fictional society they depict. I suspect this may be true: I’ve seen about two dozen comments in defense of “Never Let Me Go” and every one seemed to hold the belief that you can actually program human beings to behave this way: without hypnosis, drugs, or brain surgery. If you just “train” them properly, while, they’ll jump into your oven and let you cook them like Al Capp’s Shmoos. Every one. Without exception.

That means that there are LOTS of people out there who really do hold that opinion. Reasonable to suspect that the set of people who think other human beings can be conditioned like cattle (actually that’s rude to cattle. Slaughter houses are set up so that the cows at the end of the line can’t see what’s happening to the ones at the front. Even cows, warned ahead of time, will moo and stampede) overlaps with the set of people who can create stories and films.  Wow.  Big leap.

They believe that oppressed peoples can actually be programmed to accept and even embrace the conditions of oppression WITHOUT A SINGLE ONE REBELLING. I’ll make it clear: that is one of the most poisonous, damaging, unsupportable views of humanity I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard it all my life. It is exactly what royalty, slave masters, and the upper classes in England, Japan, India, the Old South, or men who embrace a sexist society want to believe. This goes way beyond “Trickle Down” economics or Randian supermen. “They” down at the bottom are perfectly happy. If only those outside agitators would leave “them” alone, all would be well. A place for everyone and everyone in his place…

Without one single person protesting.

Yuck. Now, I can’t really determine anything for sure about the people involved with “Never Let Me Go.” But I’ll tell you, if I caught this popping up two more times in their work, I’d need to see contrary, balancing images to convince me that this was not their actual world view.

I’ve run into this with comments about writers and editors, in some cases great writers or entire genres of writing. Yeah, that one. Why, the exclusion of group X was just a matter of selling to a prejudiced audience. The derogatory images of group Y were just lampooning bigoted attitudes. The depictions of violence against group Z were just pandering to style or politics.

This seems to arise from some bizarre need to believe that artists, writers, directors, editors or whatever are better than ordinary people. They can’t be “like us.” Guess again. Yes, they are like us. Exactly like us. They ARE us. They are on average no more conscious, aware, alert, humane, mature or intelligent than average. The best of them are certainly as focused, skilled and intelligent as highly skilled professionals in other fields. But that doesn’t make them less vulnerable to the diseases of ego and fear–the root of so many human ills.

Cracks me up when I hear first-time convention goers talking about “Wow! Such and such writer was just a regular guy…”

Yeah, he was. A regular guy who has expended his life energy and attention to developing a very specific set of skills. The same effort and attention could have brought him success in any number of other fields. It is admirable. It does not make him or her invulnerable to the ills that have plagued mankind since the beginning.

If you never mention Latvians in your writing, they aren’t on your map. If you consistently present Latvians as inferior, or you arrange events so that Latvians die disproportionately to other groups, it is fair to wonder about your attitude toward Latvians. If you love Latvians and for the sake of money consistently exclude or defame them, you are a whore. If you defend your favorite director or genre that excludes or defames Latvians, claiming that any negative images were totally driven by the audience–you are blind, and probably have difficulty understanding human motivations in other arenas as well.

If no Latvians are employed in the entertainment, communication or artistic arena of your choice, and you think this is because “Latvians aren’t interested” without asking Latvians if that is true, you aren’t interested in learning the truth. If you think this despite actual, real-world Latvians actually saying they would LOVE to be in this industry, you are deluded.

If you believe that Latvians are not represented in an industry due to lack of capacity, you have a specific prejudice. It may or may not be true…but disguising your true opinion (Latvians just don’t have what it takes) beneath a politically correct veneer is cowardice.

What are we? As human beings, the closest an outsider can come to understanding who we are is by watching our actions. For an artist, writer, director, the art produced is action. Insisting that “I Spit On Your Grave” was a Feminist tract, despite the fact that real actual women mostly found it loathsome and sexist is probably a failure of logic.

Sexism, racism, homophobia and other stuff is so culturally condemned that people would rather consider someone a total opportunistic sociopath than a bigot. Wallace’s infamous “I’ll never be out-niggered again” is a classic example of this. I’ve actually had people offer this as a DEFENSE of Wallace. As if triggering and supporting racist beliefs that destroyed hopes dreams and lives JUST TO GET ELECTED, even if he didn’t actually “hate” black people, somehow makes sense. Somehow makes him…more human. Dear God. No, it doesn’t. It makes him a monster instead of merely someone with a worldview saying one group is better than another, something utterly typical of human beings. That would simply be a vulnerability to the nearly-universal tendency to place your group–whatever it is–above others and then collect beliefs and values that support this need, born in the infantile desire to belief your daddy is the toughest, your mommy the prettiest, your family the best.

We love our artists. We do not serve them by allowing them to express their damage without comment, or with excuses. No, you probably cannot judge an artist by a single piece of work. But the scope of it? The attitudes, images, representations and plot turns in dozens or even hundreds of works? Really?

If we cannot judge someone by their life’s work…what in the world CAN we judge them by? Either they are telling their truth, or have no moral fiber at all. I say it is critical to include the artist in judgment of the art. Of course many artists don’t want this–it gives them nowhere to hide, and we desperately want people to accept our story about ourselves, rather than actually judging our actions. And make no mistake: everyone judges everything around them. Everyone around them.

By what are we to be judged, if not our actions?

2 Comments

  1. thefeministwire

    March 9, 2011 at 1:34 am

    [New Post] Pity the Poor Latvians – via #twitoaster https://thefeministwire.com/2011/03/0...

  2. Anonymous

    March 9, 2011 at 6:08 am

    I agree with your assumption that works reflect on the writer (albeit I think with far more mediation and unconscious/subconscious/non-conscious forces at play than you seem to suggest with your troubling "God" metaphor–although, to be fair, you may be trying to be more polemic than analytic in order to fight a general trend). But I disagree a little bit with your interpretation of Never Let Me Go.

    The story follows the lives of a relative handful of individuals in what appears to me to be a deeply, almost unconsciously repressive system (seemingly enforced by the government) that has been in place for at least 20 years by the time the film is set, individuals that you claim never question their position (although the climax of the film involves the individuals involved attempting to escape from their fate, I would argue).

    Yet you are willing to generalize and claim that "Every one" is a willing participant in the harvest. I see nothing but constant struggle in the actors in every scene in the film, with deep resentment and bitterness coming from Keira Knightly's character in particular after she is forced to become an active participant in her own death.

    I think your cattle comparison is apt, but not apt in the way you think. The problem of callousness or lack of struggle isn't one of willingness to engage by the oppressed, but inability. Where would you suggest they run, with implants in their arms? How would they rebel, with their crushing lack of knowledge? How many of them do you think there are? They seem to be small in number. How much sympathy does society at large give them? Almost none, despite propaganda campaigns by well-meaning activists. If there are programmed individuals involved, it is what you call "normal" people, who don't even look their chattel-humans in the eye and rarely give them meaningful acknowledgment of any kind. I would compare this to the complete lack of empathy you and I express right now, who (in my humble opinion) should be rioting in the streets because of the horrific conditions that cattle experience on their way to slaughter. Instead we acknowledge their sacrifice and move on, much like Scarlett O'Hara does with her slaves, focusing instead on our own need to "never go hungry again" (I'm being rhetorical, since I actually don't eat meat).

    I'm not dismissing you or simply saying, "Nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so." I wish I could be as optimistic as you are, but when I look around at even my most radical and outspoken fellows, I see how small in number we are, and how apathetic the great mass of people are to our dreams, hopes, fears, and anger. I also see how well-armed and brutal the people who actively disagree with us are. Martyrdom or guerrilla warfare seem like options, I suppose, but bleak ones that I believe would only replace one sort of violent repression with another. If I see a way out, it's through careful thought, respectful conversations with those I agree and disagree with, and hope for a distant future I'll probably never see.

    I'm trying to figure out what about your suggestions got under my skin, since I don't think you're completely off the mark in any of your points, your analysis of I Spit on Your Grave is very convincing, and I'm generally on board with your program. I think the problem is that you put a huge burden on individual artists. Films are not made by auteurs, they are the work of hundreds or thousands of people, and intention and assumptions only enter them in bizarre ways. I don't think that authors (I write, although I've never published a novel like you have) have God-like control over their creations anymore than we have God-like control over ourselves. Artists or individuals engaging in art, even the latest Robert Grisham ghost-writing hack and that madman Glenn Back, at least attempt to investigate their own assumptions about the world by articulating them. I think finally, the problem isn't with their investigations but with the unexamined lives of quiet desperation that most of us seem to lead who are willing to take artistic works of dialogue as simple statements of fact.

    I think we are judged by our works, as Emerson or Carlyle might say, but we have to remember that our works are often irreducibly complex and even if they're not open to all or any interpretation, there is at least more than one way to consider them.