Few people realise the intense, convoluted and internecine controversies that rage in the world of vegetable folklorists. These dour scholars generally gather in the darker corners of academe, preferring potting sheds and greenhouses to the more usual bars and senior common rooms frequented by their colleagues. They putter about in the basements of libraries where more mainstream scholars fear to tread, seeking out old manuscripts and botanical treatises. Some of them roam the highways and byways of obscure rural districts, seeking undiscovered nuggets of folklore and superstition. These solitary pursuits result in impassioned debate when these normally taciturn scholars meet.
There’s an account on Twitter called “British Suite” – no idea if it is pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, as it seems to just retweet stuff, but the name “British Suite” sounds like an Elgar elegy mourning for the loss of decency and humanity in these islands.
I am angry, and I am angry for a very good reason, so I am sick of people telling me to “calm down”.
Brexit is already hurting the UK, and the sickening anti-immigration policies of this government will hurt the economy, and are hurting real people.
Sex workers, like all other workers, ought to be able to work regular hours, have a pension, get time off when they are ill, be safe and healthy at work, and not be exploited. When they want to change careers and do something else, the fact that they have been a sex worker should not be stigmatised, as this will prevent them from choosing a different career.
Many people are expressing shock and dismay that a fascist government has taken over the USA, and at the rising tide of xenophobia in Broken Brexit Britain. However, if you are at all familiar with the rise of the Third Reich and the operation of oppressive systems such as the British Empire, the signs have been writ large for some time. If you need a crash course in recognising the oppressive atmosphere for what it is, then here’s a crash course. Why have I chosen mostly novels? Because novels try to describe how it feel to be in the situation, and to provoke empathy. And empathy for the persecuted is what we need more of right now.
February is LGBT History Month in the UK, and there are events exploring queer history up and down the country. Oxford Brookes University has an excellent programme of events, and the other day I went to the first event of LGBTHM 2017, the launch of an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s photographs, which included a film about Claude Cahun by Lizzie Thynne.
Science fiction, particularly the writings of Ursula le Guin, explores hypothetical alternative societies, cultures, futures, and histories. I am currently watching Babylon 5 again on DVD, and would highly recommend it as an exploration of what happens when a totalitarian and xenophobic government takes over, and how people come together to resist.
Alternative visions of the world
Both fantasy and SF present alternative visions of the world. Some of these visions are helpful, and others are not. Some are dystopian, some are utopian. Some are hierarchical, some are egalitarian. Some have individual heroes, others have resistance movements. Some inspired whole Pagan movements, such as the Church of All Worlds, inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you grok that? There are a surprising number of parallels between Paganism and SF, and a lot of Pagans who read SF, too.
The other day, I saw this tweet, and it set me thinking. Would people who said they’d follow the MockingJay, or fight in Dumbledore’s army, actually resist fascism? Would they be able to relate the fantasy world resistance to the real thing?
If you ever said you’d fight in Dumbledore’s army, you’d follow the MockingJay, you’d fight back against the Empire – now is the time. pic.twitter.com/k6yJGQs5uo
— Sharar Ravitz (@JewfroMacabbi) November 22, 2016
In order to answer that question, which of these genres provides better models for resisting a slide into fascism, we have to take a step back to another question.
What’s the difference between fantasy and SF?
Science fiction usually offers an explanation (however tenuous or inferred) of how the world, and the technology in it, came to be the way it is. Science fiction can include alternative histories, what-if scenarios, extrapolations into the future, utopias, and dystopias. It has many sub-genres. There’s hard science fiction, which mainly deals with the effects of technology on society; soft science fiction, which looks at things from a social science perspective (anthropology or sociology, sometimes linguistics or psychology). There’s steampunk, where the technology is mostly steam-driven, with lots of cogs and brass (this emerged out of the alternative history sub-genre). SF is sometimes called speculative fiction.
In fantasy, the underlying technology is generally magic. Fantasy also has several sub-genres. There’s the sword and sorcery tale. There’s space opera (which is basically fantasy masquerading as SF). A lot of fantasy seems to be set in a very hierarchical medieval or feudal world, and often in a magic kingdom which is reached by a magic door (or wardrobe, or mirror). There are many interesting and classic fantasy novels, but in many ways the genre was put out of joint by the sheer weight of The Lord of the Rings, which has had many imitators, most of them bad (I really like LoTR, but for goodness’ sake, get your own plot, fantasy authors). And quite frankly, the Harry Potter books are basically a school story with magic in it (though I heartily approve of the egalitarian behaviour of “Dumbledore’s Army”, and of the brilliant caricature of OFSTED in the person of Dolores Umbridge). A marvellous exception to all of this is Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has quite a lot of crossover with science fiction, with parallel worlds, and even a slight steampunk feel to some of the worlds in it. And of course there’s Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly insightful Discworld novels, which are arguably Pagan theology at its finest.
Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in our reality, into which fantastic elements emerge, and it uses these to comment on things in our world. Examples include most of Neil Gaiman‘s oeuvre, Seanan McGuire’s hilarious InCryptid series, which is about the adventures of a family of cryptozoologists, the Storm trilogy by R A Smith, and The Last Changeling by F R Maher.
Models for resistance and change in SF and fantasy
In fantasy novels, when someone resists the encroachment of evil, the evil is usually fairly obvious, and frequently relies on a supernatural source of power. It’s a Dark Lord (Voldemort, Sauron, etc). Better quality fantasy novels have more subtle tyrants, like Saruman, who started out trying to resist Sauron, but because he tried to use Sauron’s power to do so, ended up becoming like Sauron himself. Another example of a subtly-drawn tyrant is Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, who works for the Magisterium, and indeed Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is something of an ambivalent character. The protagonist of these novels is usually especially gifted with magical powers to resist the evil (the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising; Harry Potter; even Lyra), or has been fated to be the one to resist since the beginning of time, or since their birth. One of the clever things about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s nothing all that special about Frodo Baggins, except perhaps the ordinariness of hobbits. As Tolkien himself pointed out, it is Frodo’s vulnerability and smallness that fitted him for the task.
In science fiction novels and dramas, the evil or oppression to be resisted is often systemic, and identifiable as a human construct, the outcome of a complex web of causality (though sometimes, as in Isaac Asimov’s story The Caves of Steel, it’s the consequence of the environment). Because the evil or oppression is usually systemic, the means of resisting it is usually co-operative and collaborative; not led by one single hero, but requiring the input of many people working together. In Babylon 5, for example, although Sheridan is important as a leader of the resistance, he couldn’t have done it without Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, the resistance on Mars, the co-operation of the security people who didn’t collaborate with the regime, and so on. In Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge, the resistance consists of many different individuals coming together to bring about change.
Bertolt Brecht, Darko Suvin, and cognitive estrangement
In his ground-breaking essay, Estrangement and Cognition (1968, 1979, 2014), where he analyses the difference between SF and fantasy, Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadian literary critic, wrote that science fiction engages in ‘cognitive estrangement’. Suvin says that fantasy and myth is estranged from everyday reality, but it does not ask us to think about why; we accept the magic door, and other magical effects, as a priori necessities in the fantastical universe. Literary fiction, set in our universe, is not estranged, though it may be cognitive and require us to think about cause and effect. Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in an alternative world, but it is one we are required to think about, and to actively construct in our imaginations by looking for clues in the text about how the world, and its technology, works; how the society of the SF novel came to be the way it is.
Suvin based his interpretation on the Russian theatre technique of ostranenie, a term coined by the playwright Shklovsky, and meaning ‘making the familiar strange’. This is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s use of Verfremdungseffekte (often translated as ‘alienation effects’, but Suvin’s translation, ‘estrangement effects’, gets the idea across much better). It’s possible that Brecht was told about the technique on a visit to Moscow in 1935. Brecht created his plays and poetry to get people thinking, and to do that, he didn’t want them to identify with the characters and achieve a cathartic effect or a discharge of emotion. Instead, he wanted people to think about what they would do in a similar situation, or about the causes of the situation. Why does Mother Courage go round and round in circles, getting poorer and more miserable? Why do the characters of The Threepenny Opera have such terrible lives? Brecht wants us to analyse the underlying causes, as well as having a general solidarity or empathy with the characters.
The beauty of the science fictional setting, of course, is that it is already strange, and so it makes the reader think about what is happening, so that they can piece together how this fictional world works. In his essay on science fiction in Speculations on Speculation, Samuel R Delaney quotes a sentence, “I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap” (from Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants). As Delaney points out, this single sentence lets you know that there is a water shortage in this world, because there is only a trickle from the fresh water tap, and the fact that it is labelled fresh tells you that there’s another tap with non-fresh water. This leads the reader to ask, why is there a water shortage? Has there been an environmental catastrophe, or is it a desert world?
Fantasy, on the other hand, does expect the reader to identify with the characters, and to achieve an emotional catharsis through the dramatic journey that they experience. Readers of fantasy, however, know that the hero will restore the proper order in the end, and defeat the evil tyrant, because that’s how fantasy works. They also know that it’s the job of the pre-destined hero with the special powers to defeat the evil tyrant. And of course they know that in the real world, the odds may be stacked against the hero. Fantasy doesn’t provide much of a road-map for defeating a whole system of tyranny. It’s very good on overthrowing the Dark Lord with a magic sword, but what if the Dark Lord has loads of minions waiting in the wings who are just as obnoxious as he is?
Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in ostensibly the same universe as the one we live in, with the same physical properties, and the same sort of people (barring the occasional telepath). Because it deals with whole systems of oppression or flourishing, it is much better placed to provide us with road-maps for change. Of course there are exceptions to the picture I am painting here, but it’s mostly true.
Change is systemic and collective
Resistance is collective. Yes, there are those who dare to dream bigger and better, and actually do something, and they are extremely important as catalysts – but a catalyst is no good unless it is followed by a reaction. In order to bring about change, we need to create a mass movement of people who are tired of racism, tired of homophobia, tired of misogyny, tired of austerity, tired of exploitation, globalisation, putting profits before people, and the widening wealth gap. We need to inspire them to dream something different. And we need to show them the blueprints for change, not just tell them that it is possible.
As Ursula le Guin said at the National Book Awards in 2014,
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
And she went on to add,
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
Most fantasy merely provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual. It would be good to see more fantasy that challenges the usual tropes of fantasy – which is why urban fantasy is such a refreshing change.
Science fiction, on the other hand, provides a blueprint for other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of feeling. It puts the characters in a hypothetical situation and asks what the human reaction to that situation would be; not the superhero reaction, but the human one. It can posit whole different ways of organising society, or gender, or sexuality, or the economy, and explore in depth how they would work, and how people would flourish or struggle in that environment.
Recommended reading – fiction
- The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
- City of Refuge – Starhawk
- The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
- Always Coming Home – Ursula Le Guin
- Empire of Bones – Liz Williams
- The Ghost Sister – Liz Williams
Recommended reading – non-fiction
- Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, eds James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria
- The Anarres Project for alternative futures
The title of the newest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London comes from the Beatles song, Revolution. The exhibition tells the story of social change in the sixties through music, fashion, posters, propaganda, a very grainy video of the Moon landings, a piece of Moon rock, and much more. It includes album covers, clothes, furniture, a Wiccan sword, a goat head mask made by Arnold Crowther, The Lord of the Rings memorabilia, music, design, and architecture. They even have Woody Guthrie’s diary, open at the page where he wrote that he had painted ‘This machine kills fascists’ on his guitar.
The exhibition is on until 26 February 2017. As you enter, you are given a headset with sixties music on it, which adds a musical accompaniment to the different areas of the exhibition.
What struck me about the exhibition, and about the decade as a whole, was just how contemporary it all is, and what a radical transformation it represented. The sixties was a time of resisting authority, protest against the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, gay and lesbian rights, the Black Panthers, and an end to deference. One of the exhibits was the ten-point list of demands from the Black Panthers, which were entirely reasonable, as they included the right of Black communities to police themselves, to get the reparations they were promised after slavery ended, to have decent housing, and to get jobs.
The exhibition also showed the attempts of authoritarianism to push back against all this revolutionary change: the imprisonment of Angela Davis, the murder of Che Guevara, the suppression of the May 1968 uprising in Paris by the CRS (a special unit of the police with a reputation for brutality).
Perhaps we no longer appreciate just how radical a shift the sixties represented. I remember Doreen Valiente’s speech at the Pagan Federation conference in 1997, when she recalled how repressive the 1950s were:
People today have no conception of how uptight and repressive society was back in the 1950s when Old Gerald first opened up the subject of witchcraft as a surviving old religion. You could not go into a shop then and buy a pack of Tarot cards or a book on the occult without getting curious looks and usually a denial that they stocked any such things. There were no paperback books on the occult, except such things as Old Moore’s Almanac and very popular stuff such as how to read tea leaves. Serious books on the subject were only obtainable second hand at very high prices. The mentality of the period was perfectly illustrated by the by the famous enquiry made by a distinguished lawyer in the course of the trial about the publication of DH Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when he quite seriously asked the jury, “Would you allow your servants to read this book?” There was a built in assumption that ordinary people were not entitled to read what they liked, or to think what they liked, and still less to do what they liked.
Before the 1960s, universities had rules in place where students were not allowed to have a member of the other sex in their rooms, and there was a curfew in place. In 1966, a woman could be refused a bank account if she didn’t have her husband’s permission to open one. Younger people were expected to defer to their ‘elders and betters’.
The sixties changed all that. We thought they had changed it forever, but perhaps each generation has to claim its rights anew. This exhibition is a timely reminder of the freedoms that the sixties revolution won for us, and how they were won through struggle and resistance, not through ‘natural progression’ from the old order. The young were the future, and the revolution had taken place in the minds of the young. Everything was in flux, and subject to change. You can see the excitement and optimism about the future in sixties design and writings.
The sixties was the decade that the Pagan revival really took off. This was reflected in the exhibition in a variety of ways – the Wiccan sword and goat mask, and the general atmosphere of a return to Nature, festival culture, the beginnings of rave culture, and a new-found reverence for the Goddess and for women.
There was a widespread fascination with the occult in the sixties too, and this was emphasised by the displays being interspersed with Tarot cards from the Hexen 2.0 Tarot by Suzanne Treister, which explores ideas ranging from computers, surveillance, the Whole Earth Catalog, Thoreau’s Walden, cybersecurity, ArpaNet, and cryptography:
HEXEN 2.0 looks into histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of diverse scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased intelligence gathering, and the implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society. … The project simultaneously looks at diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to advances in technology including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traces precursory ideas such as those of Thoreau, Warren, Heidegger and Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film. … HEXEN 2.0 offers a space where one may use the works as a tool to envision possible alternative futures.
Somewhere along the way, the general optimism of the sixties turned into the ‘business as usual’ of the seventies. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry still stalked the streets. Much of sixties utopianism was blown away in a puff of marijuana smoke, or so it seemed. We realised that the dark side of the sexual revolution was the notion that women must be sexually available at all times. The counterculture still existed, but it hadn’t completely transformed the over-culture. The seventies were a decade of nostalgia, labour unrest, terrible fashion, and a realisation of the dark side of sixties counterculture. The eighties came in with Thatcherism, and the grim battles between striking miners and the repressive police state. In the USA there was Reagan and Reaganomics, Star Wars, and more neoliberal austerity. The UK Labour Party lost its way and succumbed to free-market economics and the doctrine that public spending is bad.
The You say you want a revolution? exhibition offers an immersive trip into the sixties, both counterculture and mainstream, and asks what we gained and what we lost. It’s like a happening, a sixties event where people would be immersed in mind-blowing imagery and music and ideas. Given the current pushing back of the civil rights of minorities under the paltry excuse of anti-terrorism, this is a very timely retrospective.
As we sit in the quiet of this place, breathing softly, each with our own particular concerns, let us be aware of our common humanity. Each of us has our own hidden wellspring of joy, our own experience of sorrow, our unique perspective on the Divine and its relationship with the world.
Let us celebrate the diversity of dreams and visions.
Think of the trees in the woods: each grows into its individual shape to fit its particular place and the events that have shaped its growth, but each is recognisable as one of a species: oak, birch, holly, maple, yew, beech, hawthorn.
Religions are like that too: each has its own unique characteristics, shaped by place, culture and history; but all of them have their roots in the fertile soil of human experience, and all seek the living waters of the divine presence.
Let us honour the beauty and diversity of religions in the world, whilst loving and cherishing our own particular visions and traditions, recognising that we too are rooted in our common humanity, all seeking the nourishment of the endless outpouring of love and wisdom that we call by many names, all of them holy.
I wrote this meditation in 2010, or thereabouts. I thought it would work well in an interfaith or multi-faith setting. Please feel free to adapt it for your particular theological perspective. The phrase ‘the Divine’ is intended here to include deities and multiplicity.
Every time I see a friend posting about how they won’t put up with bigotry on their Facebook feed, I see comments from people going “but what about anti-white comments?” or “but what about anti-Christian comments?” or “why don’t I get to have an opinion as a straight white cisgender man?” or “Black people can be racist too”, or “not all men…” or “not all white people…”
This post is aimed at those people. I have no idea if any of them will read it, but I have to try.
Yes, humans are a prejudiced lot. Black people, LGBT people, Pagans, women, can all be prejudiced against people who are not in our specific identity groups.
But as a woman, I have to think about whether I can walk down a dark alley at night without getting assaulted. I also have to pick my male sexual partners carefully to make sure I have not picked one who will be violent towards me. I have to be careful what I post online so as to avoid receiving rape and death threats from hateful trolls. If you are male, you don’t need to worry about those things anywhere near as much as I do. Yes, I know men get raped and assaulted as well, but it is nowhere near as common as the rape and assault of women by men. Yes, I know that not all men are rapists, but nevertheless I have to consider the possibility that the next one I meet might be, in order to stay safe.
LGBTQ people have to make similar calculations about where we go, who we socialise with, and what we post online. I am a bisexual genderqueer woman married to a man, so I ‘pass’ as straight, but for those who are visibly LGBTQ, this is a real worry. Straight people can kiss and hold hands in public; LGBTQ people have to look around to check if there’s anyone nearby who might violently attack them for kissing or holding hands. Yes, we know that not all straight people are going to attack LGBTQ people, but we have to factor in the possibility in order to stay safe.
Black, indigenous, and other people of colour also have to make these calculations around white people. Will that white person attack them? Will the other white people around them fail to defend them in the event of an attack? They also know that not all white people are violent racist thugs, or people who will stand by while racist thugs attack them — but they literally don’t know which white people are going to help, who will attack them, and who will turn a blind eye. As to people equating the Black Panthers with the KKK — the Black Panthers were a resistance group fighting back against police violence; the KKK is a white supremacist hate group responsible for lynchings and systematic brutality against Black people. One of these things is not like the other.
Disabled people get beaten up for being disabled, denied benefits by the government because they were deemed ‘fit for work’ by a completely Kafkaesque and inappropriate test. They get ignored and marginalised by able-bodied people. How do they know whether or not the next person they meet is going to do the same?
Pagans, Muslims, Jews, and atheists have frequently experienced Christians assuming that we are all devil-worshippers, terrorists, part of an international banking conspiracy, or utterly immoral; so if we seem ‘prejudiced’ against Christians, it is because we have frequently been excluded from employment, discriminated against, and worse because of our religion. We know that not all Christians endorse these views, but for decades, the loudest voices among Christians have been those promoting bigotry and hate — sadly supported by the media only giving platforms to Christians with bigoted and hateful views. So, if you don’t support bigotry against Muslims, Jews, Pagans, atheists, LGBT people, and so on: then those attacks are not aimed at you. If you think that holding bigoted views is ‘religious freedom’, then you are part of the problem.
So if Black people, LGBTQ people, people of other belief systems, or women seem ‘prejudiced’ against you — ask yourself why that might be. If their entire prior experience is of people either attacking them, or minimising and ignoring an attack on them, why should you be the exception?
It’s not that your opinion is automatically invalid if you are white and/or straight and/or cisgender and/or male: but if you are saying “calm down” to minority groups who are scared rigid by the election of an openly white supremacist anti-LGBT misogynist who has the endorsement of the KKK, then you are dismissing their experiences of being attacked by white supremacists, anti-LGBT bigots, and misogynists — and that’s why your opinion is being discounted, and why your straight white cis male status is mentioned, because that explains why you haven’t had the same experience.
Also, since when has being on the receiving end of negative comments about being straight and/or white and/or male and/or cisgender been anything like the experience of being afraid to walk down the street or use public transport whilst visibly Muslim, Black, Latina/o/x, disabled, female, LGBT, etc because of the likelihood that you might be violently attacked, either by police or fellow-citizens? Since when has having your opinion dismissed because you lack experience of oppression been anything like being denied decent housing, jobs, or access to justice or clean water? There is no comparison between being told that you don’t know because you haven’t experienced something, and being told that the discrimination or violence that you actually experienced wasn’t really racism or homophobia or misogyny. There is no comparison between systemic and violent oppression and your feelings being hurt because someone called you out on your privilege.
Sure, not everyone who voted for Trump or for Brexit was a white supremacist, or a homophobe, or a misogynist, or anti-disabled. But they were people who ignored the blatant misogynist, homophobic, anti-disabled, and racist rhetoric of the campaigns, and voted for Trump or Brexit anyway. If you did that, it implies that you don’t care enough about the concerns of minority groups who will be victimised by the far-right policies of Trump or the Tories and by the violent attacks by thugs who feel vindicated in their racism, homophobia, misogyny, or anti-disabled attitudes. If you don’t care about the effects of far-right policies and attitudes and violence on minority groups, then that in itself is a species of bigotry. Sure, you wouldn’t go out and beat up members of minority groups — but you didn’t care enough not to vote in a way that legitimised hateful policies and hate-filled rhetoric.