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Other people's toes: a rant

So yesterday I finally got around to reading the May issue of the SFWA Bulletin, the one focusing on the Nebulas. Lots of interesting stuff, as usual and all the regular features, so far so good. And a piece by Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear.
Now, I was underwhelmed by seeing these win the best novel award, because the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and -- as an Oxbridge historian -- I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently (I had the same issues with Doomsday Book). But that's my opinion, and the Nebulas are a US award and people do make cultural errors. So and all...
Then I read her short piece in the Bulletin. Here's the key excerpt. 'That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating -- the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What's not to like.'

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, 'How about all the dead civilians? That's not to like at all.'
Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun. My Uncle Bob served in the army and was at Dunkirk, and subsequently, due to shell shock, was put to digging bodies out of the rubble left by bombs in London. He never got over it. My Auntie Florrie contracted TB of the bone while working as an army nurse and died young as a result. My mother, then a junior school child, lived less than 8 miles from where Hess was being kept as a prisoner, though she didn't find this out till she was in her 50s. She remembers the evacuees, too, miserable and terrified and confused. My father can remember finding the hand, still in its glove, of a Canadian pilot whose plane was shot down. None of that is fun.

Here's my point. History is not a theme park. It's not a story, either. It's people's real lives. If you're going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because -- as Ms Willis did with me -- otherwise, you're going to find someone's sore place, someone's vulnerability, someone's sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you're going to do damage. Other countries aren't theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They're homes to millions, they're people's lives, too.

I didn't know I had a hot button about the Blitz. I was taken aback, rather, by how strongly I felt about this. Doomsday Book annoyed the hell out of me, because the errors were so egregious and so easily avoidable. The same is true of the errors in Blackout/All Clear. And I'm inured to people's assumptions about how stupid, how dim, how un-rigorous and unscientific and woolly historians must be because, after all, anyone can do that job, anyone can read books about the past, can't they? You don't spend 30+ years specialising in an obscure historical period without hearing every negative view going about your value, status, skills and profession.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it's not fun, it's not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all. I'm sure Ms Willis didn't mean her comments that way, either. I've never met her, but what I've read suggests that she's a perfectly nice, intelligent woman. She written some books I like and some I don't like. That's on me, not her. I'm sure she didn't set out to hurt or offend. This is about my perceptions, my reactions. I accept that completely.

And while I'm talking about this, let's have a look at another phrase I'm seeing a lot lately, 'Eurocentric fantasy'. This, as far as I can tell, means fantasies set in backgrounds drawn from a sort of default idea of mediaeval Europe (usually Western Europe at that). I understand what people mean by this, and what they are thinking about. The thing is, as a European myself, these fantasies don't feel 'Eurocentric' to me. They don't feel like Europe at all, they feel like a mix of 50s Hollywood historicals and Las Vegas, they are theme park fantasies -- right up there with that 'England' where everyone is either Hugh Grant or a Cockney, and we have names like Rupert and Gwendolen (not in my lifetime, oh Buffy -- and Wesley is a surname, not a first name in the social class that Wesley Windom-Price is supposed to come from). I get how this happens -- we have 'theme park' America here, a land of cowboys and drive-ins and deep-fried bacon. I got into a discussion a few days ago on jimhines blog about the term 'First World', and how to me it means something different to what it seems to mean to many non-Britons. We have different understandings of the world, depending on who we are and where we live, on what we are, on what we have learned and observed. But when I see the whole 'Eurocentric' thing as a slam, while my head understands what is meant, my heart hears something else. My heart hears, "well, *your* past is rubbish and overdone and bad, and we've mined it out and used up all the fun stuff anyway and now it's just this huge negative thing that we don't want any more". (I am not here demanding that we get a free pass against the many many bad things done by the British through history. I am talking about 2ndary world fantasies drawing on European cultural tropes.) Plus, some of the tropes and themes mean different things to us now to what they did in the past, or to what they mean to the European diaspora.

I'm not saying all fantasies based on European histories are bad. There are many good ones -- I've written about Judith Tarr's and Kit Kerr's before. And there are more. But those are properly researched, properly thought through. They're not highlights and assumptions and 'isn't this cool'? I do my best to be careful with my own books: I read about the same volume for my fiction as I do for my academic writing and I try to do my best. I probably make mistakes. My feet are clay. I hope I'm not doing too desperately badly.

I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people's things, histories, homes. We don't all understand the same things in what we read, we don't all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It's far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It's far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

And this is a very British blog post. I seem to be turning into the poster girl for this kind of thing, lately. But it sits in my head and it niggles, and... Well, that's me, I guess.
I'm friends'-locking for now: will open it if others think that would be a good idea.

Skirt of the day: jeans.

Saturday update: I'm still here reading but today I won't have time to post. I will be back and commenting tomorrow. Have a great day.


Jul. 21st, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
But I am an American, and I have close relatives who also suffered in the Blitz. One of my grandmother's sisters was killed in it. My cousins Mary and Peter were evacuated right into the path of what might have been Operation Sea Lion. My Great-Uncle Will, who was at Gallipoli as a young man, was an air raid warden during it -- one of the men who climbed onto the dome of St.Paul's to knock away the incendiary bombs when Hitler ordered the cathedral targeted. My cousin Frank was an electrical engineer engaged in secret war work.

I think you forget how many Americans have family in the UK and in Europe. These stories are not just your history. Much of it is also ours.

I deplore bad historical writing, as you and I have often discussed. But it's not just the Terrible Americans who do it. The British and the Europeans have their delusions, too. Consider Neil Ferguson -- and he doesn't even admit that some of what he writes is fiction. :-) If everyone in France who said they were in the Resistance had actually been in the Resistance, the Nazis would have been kicked out in six weeks. And so on and so forth.

It's not that the British have done many "bad things". It's that they imposed their culture and their language over half the world by the force of gunfire. America is your creation. Now it's come home for a look at the creator.

Jul. 21st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
It's not that the British have done many "bad things". It's that they imposed their culture and their language over half the world by the force of gunfire. America is your creation. Now it's come home for a look at the creator.

I agree with this, but it doesn't actually contradict the OP. When said look at the creator is imperialistic, voyeuristic, and utterly lacking in empathy, it really ought to be called out. And being the UK's creation in some sense does not absolve Americans of responsibility.
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
I never said it contradicted it. Nor am absolving Americans of all responsibility. I merely would like to see the British realize how much of the modern world and its real troubles are the results of their earlier actions. Consider the situation in Africa, for instance . . .
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely.
(No way I'm going to argue on that one; I'm Indian. I can't exactly avoid the damage the British have done :))
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Indeed! :-)

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Jul. 21st, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
In fact, David Cameron recently said, and while I paraphrase I don't do so very much, "Most of the world's problems these days are directly Britain's fault."

He caught a whole lot of shit for saying that, but he wasn't wrong. :)
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Jul. 21st, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
We do know, really we do. And we talk about it and fret about it and try to do better. And none of our governments do enough in my view. And I consider Thatcher's behaviour to the Hong Kong Chinese to be shameful and indefensive, right up there with her 'friendship' Pinochet and her double standards over South Africa. One of the things about history is that we should, in my view, own all of our culture's history, not just the bits that are comfortable, we should admit and face our huge huge acts of evil. I try hard to do this. It's one of the reasons I refuse to cherry-pick amongst my ancestors and only admit to the 'safe' ones or to play the oppressed Celt card.
I am so very sorry if I've upset you. I really wasn't trying to do that.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Her remark is absolutely likely to hurt non-Britons too, of course it is. And I am not discounting those stories, nor did I intend to appear to be doing so. I'm very sorry if I did so by accident. And certainly it's not just Terrible Americans. There are some absolutely Bloody Appalling British writers doing this sort of thing, too. I have no time for them at all.
Colonialism is indefensible. I have huge guilt about it, and a huge sense of powerlessness and I struggle daily with trying to know what to do about its legacy and how not to make it worse. I haven't read Ferguson: the reviews made me shudder. I apologise for my idiot compatriots.
Certainly the modern US began as a British colony. But there was a French one too and a Spanish one, in other areas, and they have their legacies, too, surely? As do all the other immigrant cultures which also settled within its borders (and those of Canada and Central and Southern America) or were forceably imported. Certainly, from my perspective, there are big parts of modern US culture which descend from German and Swedish, Irish and Spanish and Polish cultures.
This isn't about US blaming, really it isn't. It's mostly me being so startled by what Willis wrote and how unthinkingly hurtful it was.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
Perhaps the problem is that I'm beyond being startled by the unthinking remarks of my compatriots -- they make so many of them.

Seriously, though, what's making me shirty on this subject is, oddly enough, Tony Blair's memoirs (filed in the "true crime" section of many bookstores.) I knew he'd influenced Clinton to go bomb Serbia. I had no idea that he'd led the less than intelligent Bush around by the nose, too. America's lost a lot of lives and money in Blair's war -- so has Britain, of course, but our bill's a lot higher.

The British Empire is alive and well in some English minds. Powerful ones, unfortunately, and America makes too convenient a scape-goat for other people's meddling.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
I loathe Blair in every sense. And I loathe that section of our population that yearns for empire. Vile, the whole lot.
I haven't read Blair's book, and I don't intend to.
We call it Bush's war, here, though, and the news media take is that it's about oil and the 'New American Century' ideology of Dick Cheney and his cabal. I suspect the truth -- Blair, Bush, Uk, US -- lies somewhere in the middle and will only come out long after I'm gone, sadly. It's an indefensible war.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
The predominant culture in the US up until the 1960s was a strange descendant of the British Way. It's one of the things that the wretched Tea Party is trying to bring back, their all white English-only-speaking "common decency" view of the 1950s, when they were in charge and all those nasty Others knew their place.

The US is huge. French, German, and Scandanavian culture influenced only small pockets of it. Ditto the Asian cultures I take for granted out here in California. The one serious rival to this distorted view of What Being English Means is Hispanic culture, and that's why so many rightwing Americans freak out at the idea of Spanish language TV and other manifestations of its growing power. Even that, however, is limited to certain regions in the States.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
I didn't know this. Thank you. Victorian Britain was a vile place and I'm so sorry you got stuck with it. And with the Puritans, or at least the legacy of their religious intolerance. That was an appalling thing to do to the American continent, it really was. We should have put them on a small, uninhabited rock and left them.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
Well there was a lot more German influence here than 'small pockets.'

The Germans brought radical, progressive action with them in huge numbers after the European debacle of the failed reform movements of the 1840's. They settled in large numbers in NYC and throughout the then country including Missouri and Kansas, as well as the upper midwest. They had newspapers -- and they were abolitionists from the gitgo -- the work ethic, the Lutheran conviction that the laborer is worthy of his hire, in other words you get PAID for your work. This is one of the big reasons for the Kansas-Missouri war that bled into the Civil War, as mentioned above. Also the Germans who had immigrated to the South, left again, for these same reasons -- except for the big German movements such as Moravians out of Pennsylvania to Maryland, which had a lot to do with keeping Maryland in the Union.

It was Woodrow Wilson's WWI and particularly Hitler's WWII that drove almost all mention of the large and honorable role played by German immigrants and German thought. Just read Louisa May Alcott's chronicles of the March family, or the biography of George Eliot, to get a shadow of how important German thought and intellectuals were in the 19th century all through Europe, England and the U.S.

Also, let us not forget that the ruling attitude about history among so many is 'it's just a narrative anyway, there's no real difference between history and fiction.'

Love, C.
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Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:32 am (UTC)
The predominant culture in the US up until the 1960s was a strange descendant of the British Way.

This is so, so true. One of the earliest writings to open my mind about cultural imperialism was an Earnestly Serious piece in a reading book of mine from 6th grade...a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" piece about an Anglo boy dating a Hungarian girl. Some of the expressed attitudes were quite ugly.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC)
It's not that the British have done many "bad things". It's that they imposed their culture and their language over half the world by the force of gunfire. America is your creation. Now it's come home for a look at the creator.

Much as I respect your writing - and especially the depth of historical knowledge and understanding that underpins it - I cannot let that pass without comment. (And just to make the context clear, I am British and a historian, if a somewhat specialised one.) In the historical past, Britain has committed many sins, often with the best of intentions: the missionary and the merchant frequently found their interests conveniently well aligned. There is much of which we should be ashamed - or, perhaps more realistically, which we should now recognise in a more balanced version of history. The past is the past; we cannot change it, but we can - perhaps - learn from it (though I hold out no great hope of that).

But - as a Briton - I resolutely refuse to accept responsibility for America. America is unequivocally its own creation: it has, with great determination and not a little pride, gone its own way, and I wish no part in it.

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