I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

D.N. Drake Guest Blog

James Maxey's note: First, just so there's no confusion, Dave Drake is not David Drake, the SF author of, like, a zillion books. This Dave Drake is someone I know from Codexwriters. His posts there can be a bit provocative and sometimes he'll bring up topics that are deemed off limits for that site. So, I reached out to him about a month ago to see if he'd be interested in doing a guest blog on a controversial topic of his choice. He came through with the following essay:

Change is coming!!! Hallelujah!!! In January 2009, the USA's next president, Barack Obama, will be inaugurated. With all the hype of him being the first black president, many people miss the fact that he isn't black, but rather a man of German, Irish, English, Cherokee, Kenyan descent who was raised by a set of ivory white grandparents. Its strange to me how even the supposedly "liberal" (what a misnomer!) left can be so calloused as to call this multicultural melting pot of a man "black". In fact, its funny how most Americans can actually be so blind to their Eurocentric definitions of race.

In the days when whitey was in charge of fucking the world up (pick a day between January 20th 2009 and any AD date that tickles your fancy) there was a bit of a superiority complex (not unusual for people in charge, regardless of parentage). This fueled the Johann Friedrich Blumenbachs of the world, and this then led to common understanding of what pedigree whiteness is-- pale skin and high foreheads. Anything askew of this was no longer "pure" white, but "tainted" -- and for obvious reasons, no longer "superior".

For some reason, this unfortunate falacy has widdled its way permanently into the brains of most people, including the many many non-white peoples of the world. This is my first gripe with all this "change" talk going around. If the pot starts out calling the kettle black, then this "monumental" moment of racial progress and equality in America is already flawed. Really, the only way "change" is going to happen is if Americans realize that being "American" is not just a nationality anymore, but an ever increasing ethnic and cultural identity.

But one may wonder if there is any silver lining to this current socio-politcal mess. Well, yes... there is, or at least I hope there is. If we, as a nation, can stop walking on fucking glass... that would be great.
What I mean by that is... if Kanye West says anything else that can be categorized as categorically annoying-as-fuck, then he needs to be treated in the same manner as dumb-ass Don Imus. Equal treatment for equally moronic people. Either that, or nobody gets punished (which is what I'm personally in favor of). Enough with the P.C. "can't say the N word with an er at the end" and the "check this box if you're Caucasian" bullshit. Nobody should use racial slurs, and I'm not fucking Turkish!

The first thing thats going to have to change (to many an African American's chagrin) is the special 'blacks are off limits' rule. Now that there's an arguably "black" man running the county, there absolutely NO REASON why whites can't poke fun at any ethnic minority of their choice. It shouldn't (and doesn't) need to be labeled as insensitive any more... (even though I don't know what I ever needed to be sensitive about, I was born in 1986 to a Dutch nanny and a second generation Irish American who descended from near slave-like plantation workers on the old Emerald Isle... COUGH... and no complaints here mind you). True, racism ran thick through the streets not so long ago (civil rights movement only a handful of decades ago), but its time to get over what happened half a century (or even one and a half centuries) ago.

James Maxey again: Thanks Dave. I sort of agree with one of your points, and largely disagree with another. I'll reply in the comment box.


James Maxey said...

Dave, I think your argument boils down to two main points: 1. Obama isn't black because it's a Eurocentric fallacy to label anyone with even a drop of black blood in them as black; it's time to free ourselves of these shackles and move on from the arbitrary classifications that divide the races. 2. There has been a hypersensitive standard that has caused some commentators who make reference to black people in a thoughtless way to lose their jobs or at the very least be accused of being racist. You mentioned Don Imus, but the incident that most bothered me was the public flogging of Bill Bennett. He was accused of saying that aborting black babies would lower the crime rate. He did, in fact, say words to this effect, but in the context of setting it up as a strawman argument that he then shot down as immoral. It required a lot of will power (or a fair amount of cynicism) to take offense from this, yet it happened.

I'm bothered by the hyper-sensitivity and outrage because I think it winds up being counter-productive. If someone lives thier life expecting to be offended, it's highly probable that they will find something to seeth about almost daily. This isn't the most productive path to bliss.

As to your first point about Obama's mixed heritage and our fallacious definition of race, you're overthinking this. Obama is black because, to 99 out of a hundred observers, he looks black. I don't care how race was defined centuries ago; we don't walk around knowing the family tree of everyone we meet, and we definitely don't run DNA tests to discover all their possible heritage. To deny that he's black requires denying the consensual reality of your fellow humans.

We habitually walk around dividing people into overlapping categories of attributes. Young, old, middle aged, male, female, black, white, asian, maybe gay, maybe crazy, maybe Jehavoh's Witness. We've got a long evolutionary history that encourages us to sort people quickly into categories. I think we probably have a few more decades to go before we undo that biological awareness of otherness. But... it can and is being overcome. I've seen change and progress in just my four decades on the planet. We may, indeed, one day belong to a post-racial world. But, for now, I think Obama is black.

Mr. Cavin said...

“If someone lives their life expecting to be offended, it's highly probable that they will find something to seethe about almost daily.”

Twenty years ago, I might have gone on and on about this, offering that this type of sensibility really infuriated me. I certainly felt that the tendency for some to mine every possible subtext for its unrevealed evils was a gauche and egocentric way to claim a vocal entitlement to victimhood. It played into society’s insistence that social formulas kept Good Men Down, fueled the motors of every paranoid with a typewriter, and offered the perfect opportunity for people to consistently talk about themselves. I’m great, they all seemed to say, because the world is an asshole.

At the time, I might have adopted and arch and colloquial voice while arguing these sentiments, dropping into whimsical patter (including copious profanity). This might have been, in part, because I pictured myself—whitely, maniacally—as a cutting-edge Mark Twain, relaxing into my rattan while I devastated banal and hypocritical mores with my literate panache, lowering my thunder through my bristling and vibrant mustachios.

I can see through my younger self now. While a certain amount of blaming the victim is probably relevant, I’d say it’s never particularly gracious and it’s certainly not all that cool. I have certainly switched to suffering much greater annoyance at the hands of people who breathlessly work to fray the sensibilities of those who are easily offended. People who pitch half-argued sound bites and bumper sticker controversy around online just to raise the hackles of those easy targets who seem to rely on their hackles at the exclusion of everything else.

Back to me. There was something I noticed about my penchant for the folksy and whimsical airs I adopted when I was Rufflin’ Feathers. Not only was it the adoption of an act, working as a barrier between me and the values I was light-heartedly chaffing, but it was role playing: I was fulfilling an expectation I held about the way folk wisdom was supposed to sound. I was actually adopting the trappings of oral history while I talked my junk. It’s a key indication that, even at the time, I had no faith in my silly assertions. More that I wanted to make their craft memorable, categorical. Because I wanted the world to remember not the ideas that I held—they were hardly ideas at all—but that I was special for holding them.

Loren Eaton said...

Wow. Well this should be interesting ...

James Maxey said...

Cavin, I'm not entirely clear on what your point is. That we should be hypersensitive about causing offense? Or, perhaps more accurately, that we should be more annoyed with people who attempt to be deliberately provocative--folks like Don Imus who make a living kicking hornets nests and then express suprise at getting stung?

I wasn't that bugged by ESPN firing Rush Limbaugh for his Donavan McNabb comments or Don Imus losing his gig. They made their comments on airwaves leased by other people, and these people have the right to decide whether or not to continue their contracts with these on-air personalities.

I'm more annoyed when these arguments take place on the political playing field. In the short time between Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance, Hillary Clinton victimed-up and she (or her surrogates) argued that voting against her was sexist. Then, in the weeks that followed, as Bill Clinton went out and rallied the vote in Southern States, Obama surrogates accused him of race-baiting.

What I most want, as an American, is the right to dislike Hillary Clinton without being accused of being sexist, and the right to dislike Obama without being accused of being a racist. I can loathe Mitch Romney without loathing mormons, I can think Lieberman is a tool without hating jews, and I can despise John Travolta without despising all scientologists.

By the way, I'm a member of a group of folks who sometimes come across as hyper-aggrieved--atheists. 99% of atheists I know are actually fairly laid back about it. A suprising number won't talk about it. But then there's that last one percent who sues due to the offense of having their children say "one nation under god," or seeing the ten commandmants on a courthouse wall. On a high intellectual level, I suppose I get the arguments why such things shouldn't be done. On a gut level, though, I think it makes atheists come across as whiners who suffer emotional damage from seeing a Christmas manger on the town square.

As a card-carrying atheist, the message I would most like to give my more litigous brothers is, "Suck it up." The place to promote our values in in books and debates, not courthouses. (Although, of course, if there were a genuine slight, such as a person being fired from a teaching position because they stated they thought of the Bible as a purely literary work, then I'll join hte chant of, "Sue, baby, sue!"

rastronomicals said...

Very interesting where Mr. Maxey ended up, considering where Mr. Drake had started.

The argument was a little curvilinear, but I THINK that Mr. Drake agrees with me, and with the many who posit that Obama's election moves us a great deal towards a post-racial society.

As Obama steers the ship of state through the coming four years, he's going to receive a great deal of both praise and criticism. But the wonderful thing is that the defining factor for most of it is going to be his politics, not the color of his skin.

And this is not just a wonderful thing, it's a wonderful *new* thing: Ask Jesse Jackson if he might not find himself a little envious of this state of affairs for President Obama.

I may be naive, but it's my expectation that as the Obama administration moves forward and then fades into the rearview mirror, we will see barriers to both achievement AND sensible free speech drop away.

Excuses too.

But as an atheist myself (though one who almost never brings it up in business or social circles) I can't help but think that if a post-racial society is indeed nigh upon us, a *post-religious* society remains as far away as ever.

rastronomicals said...

P. S. Do they really give out cards?

James Maxey said...

Ras, of course they give out cards. Didn't you go to the induction ceremony? I'm posting a copy of my card in a new post.

Mr. Cavin said...

“Cavin, I'm not entirely clear on what your point is. That we should be hypersensitive about causing offense? [...etc...]”

Whoa, wow. No. Hey, I think I need to apologize for being too obscure. Or maybe too oblique. Your blog made me have thoughts and I tried to articulate them, and then, embarrassingly, walked away feeling like I’d crafted a fairly clever post. One of my points was that I could sometimes subordinate the content of my ideas to the context of my communication. It was a point I wanted to make in my comment, not by my comment. Sorry.

I’m left to figure out exactly how I was unclear, so I’m going to make the best of it here by explaining everything. I apologize again, in advance, if I answer the wrong question.

First off, I was not commenting on any of these issues. I find it frustrating to comment on very complex things. I want to write pages and pages. Frequently I feel I do not yet know enough to form an opinion I’m willing to set into stone. Lastly, for advancing ideas, I prefer the format of a conversation to the soapbox of a forum.

I thought you made, in your initial post (as well as the one I’ve quoted above), several well reasoned points. I would have to pretend to be a different person to disagree with many of them. In contrast, your guest blogger hammered breathlessly on hot-buttons without really advancing his argument cogently. His soap-boxing seemed to take the form of a “suck it up” diatribe against political correctness, the mistakes of others, etc. It got in my face a little, even though I feel like I might agree with some of the things I think were maybe his points. Mainly it was the confrontational and undeveloped nature of the way he advanced his arguments that riled me, arguments which seemed like nothing much more than a post-PC standup routine.

Maybe I am just not familiar enough with his shorthand to understand the complexity of his thoughts. But again: diatribe.

Anyway, it all made me think of how much less I like internet trolls than I am annoyed by hypersensitive people, and seeing as I didn’t find too much in the way of reason to attack in his post, I bit into the tone. I tried to do it with a tact I’ve abandoned here, and I’ll bet that led to the confusion.

Maybe all of this was clear, but I don’t want to make any mistake. I am frequently annoyed equally by the hypersensitive and those who deliberately provoke. But one is just such an easy target, whereas the other is a bully. Neither seem to spend much time understanding the issues they vehemently and sarcastically blurb at one another, and neither seem to take time to understand what sensitivities nurture the conditions they attack before they begin to shout. I would probably be ascribing too much to my own comment if I indicated I was trying to do just that.

(I do feel like it is important to weigh the effect of one's communication on the feelings of others. Picking on someone's sensitivities after trampling them is pretty asinine, even if the trampler is demonstrably in the right. I assume that "hypersensitive", like any other label, is most frequently applied as a convenient dismissal than as an actual, you know, diagnosis.)

James Maxey said...

Ras said, "I may be naive, but it's my expectation that as the Obama administration moves forward and then fades into the rearview mirror, we will see barriers to both achievement AND sensible free speech drop away. Excuses too."

I think you're right. A lot of kids are told that if they work hard they can grow up to be president, but to date it's only been white boys who had no barriers in the way other than their own personal slothfulness. Now, black men, too, can be haunted by the nagging internal question, "If you're so smart, why aren't you president?"

Mr. Cavin wrote: "Mainly it was the confrontational and undeveloped nature of the way he [Dave] advanced his arguments that riled me, arguments which seemed like nothing much more than a post-PC standup routine."

In retrospect your post makes perfect sense... I think I was thrown off by the fact you started off with a quote from my response that threw me off the trail that your comments were more about the main post.

I wasn't bugged by Dave's tone or style, and while I was thinking about this at work today I started building in my head a rather ridiculous argument--I just don't get offended easily, and so perhaps I'm just more able to step back and analyze what someone is saying without getting distracted by how they are saying it.

A few minutes of thought along this track quickly brought me to the conclusion I was full of shit. I'm as offendable as anyone else, I'm just fortunate enough not to be a member of a group that's constantly under attack.

My proof is the Libby Dole godless ad, where she dubbed a woman's voice over a picture of her oppenent, Kay Hagan, saying, "There is no god!" My immediate reaction was, "Can Kay Hagan really be an atheist???" I was so excited! Alas, it was not to be. But, then my disappointment turned to anger. "Godless" was obviously being used as a smear by Dole, and being seen as a smear by Hagan. It really bugged me; not to a losing sleep over it level, but to a talk about it with everyone I know level. Knowing I was a member of a group that it was safe to openly revile was something of a eye-opener. Because it wasn't that long ago in North Carolina that Jesse Helms ran the infamous "black hands" ad that talked about white people losing their jobs to black people due to affirmative action. Did Helms ever stop and think about all the citizens of North Carolina who had black hands? He must have known that by running this ad, he was writing them off.

As an atheist, I had a moment this fall where I understood quite clearly that Libby Dole had decided that she didn't represent me. I think that black people in NC probably felt for many years that Jesse Helms didn't represent them, and who can blame them? They didn't have to go hunting down things to be offended about. Helms was more than happy to bring the offense straight to their living rooms.

I don't want to silence bigotry, however. Silencing bigoted speech doesn't really change people's minds, and can have a rebound effect of making people feel sorry for the person who is being silenced. I think it's much more useful to have an environment where people feel safe to say what's on their minds, and other people are safe to argue with them. Debate is what changes people's minds, and debate can't happen if one side is automatically told to sit down and shut up.

At this point, I think I've completely gotten off the point of my response to you, Mr. C. My apologies. I was going to make the point that the reason I don't mind Dave's tone isn't due to my somehow having a thicker hide than other people, it's that I'm more easily amused by loud and flashy things than most people.

Gray Rinehart said...

Great line, James: "If someone lives thier life expecting to be offended, it's highly probable that they will find something to seeth about almost daily. This isn't the most productive path to bliss."

D.N. Drake said...


Not trying to start anything here, but you could've summed both of your posts up with just about three or four sentences... tops. I don't know if it was your intention to be a contradiction, but in your second post you said you realized "how much less I like internet trolls than I am annoyed by hypersensitive people" while you are doubling the length of the original rant with two long winded (twin) posts on a small blog's comment page due to issues pertaining to tone.

Mr. Cavin said...

Mr. Drake, you've certainly represented my actions in this comment section pretty correctly although I fail to find, even in your summary, any note of contradiction. I do not remember finding fault with the length of your post.

D.N. Drake said...

The point of my comment was to say that by discussing my short rant and actually exceeding its word count because of an issue you held with its tone, you were actually the hypersensitive internet troll that you so dislike.

James Maxey said...

Okay, I think I'm going to step in here and issue some apologies. First, Mr. Cavin, while I can't and won't apologize for Dave, I do apologize for having a forum with my name attached to it used for simple name-calling. I suspect you probably have suffered little long term psychological damage from this name calling, but still, I didn't see it coming, and I feel foolish that I created an environment that allowed what I thought was going to be a decent debate to devolve into name-calling.

Dave, I owe you an apology as well. I'm not going to throw you under the bus and say I'm shocked or offended by your words. The whole point of inviting you here was that I liked your bomb-throwing approach to various issues; you've never been afraid to say things that might be shocking or offensive, but I also felt like you were saying things you had put some thought into... thought I frequently disagreed with, but thought none-the-less.

When I invited you here, I didn't lay down any ground rules, because I wasn't aware that I had any. Profanity doesn't bug me all that much, nor does a difficult to defend position such as Obama not being black strike me as out of bounds. However, I owe you a debt of gratitude because you've just helped me discover that I do have a boundary I was unaware of: I don't want my forum being used to personally insult readers of my blog, period. It happens that Mr. Cavin is a long time friend of mine who predates this blog, so I'm not too worried that he's going to abandon this blog in a huff. But, there are plenty of other readers who I've never met personally, and I'm grateful that they bother to take the time to stop by and read my rambling opinions. I'm not worried about offending them with my opinions; they can take or leave my thoughts on God, government, and plot construction. I'll say what I think and let them deal with their own reactions. But, it's just deeply uncool to make a personal insult on someone who has come here voluntarily to participate.

But, I realize that I've just called you (or your actions) deeply uncool. Again, I don't intend to insult you. I suspect you would have gladly played by the rules if I'd established some rules to start with. I didn't, and I'll take responsibility that this has happened.

Dave, if you'd like to continue this debate, the thing I'm truly intrigued by is the contention that Obama isn't black. I suppose, if I'm understanding your argument, that no one is black? (And no one is white, or asian, etc.?) Because that's a truly interesting argument to make. You've brought a very strange bat to this intellectual ball park. I'm curious to see how far you can hit with it.

D.N. Drake said...

My apologies James, I get a little out of hand at times... as you know. I'll keep it on topic from here on in.

D.N. Drake said...

Yeah, my whole point was that the definitions of race are, at least nowadays with the geographical boundaries broken down thanks to modern transportation (plains trains and automobiles) and countries like America which is a racial melting pot. If in the last few millenniums of human history, races remained separated by large deserts, bodies of water, and mountains (and remained separate for hundreds of millenniums)), then maybe the races would actually become strikingly different to the point of actually being different yet similar coexisting species (much like neanderthals and our early relatives). Certainly that was in the process of happening prior to humans creating language and the metaphors that allow for subjective consciousness -- the vital internal space needed to bring us to where we are as a species today. That being said, our races are nothing but skin pigmentation, skull shape, and cultural differences. For the most part, nobody in the world is purebred anything. Mass migrations and wars (prior to modern transportation) garuntees that, and nowadays even more so. Additionally, if we go back to the definition of an African American again -- to most people, regardless of how light the skin pigmentation is or how obviously an individuals mixed heritage is (halle berry, obama, terrence howard, colin powell, and millions of others) they are labeled as black because of their nose and lips shapes and a somewhat darker pigmentation. This is, in my opinion, a stark example of eurocentric racial definitions in American society. Nobody shrugs when I say I'm Irish and Dutch (my mothers from Amsterdam, my fathers from McClain Ave in the Bronx) but in reality my last name is English and my mothers dutch grandfather was a Berber. Everybody is mixed, and therefore racial and ethnic barriers are barely anything other than some very surface differences.

D.N. Drake said...

first sentance should be...

at least nowadays [completely broken down]...

sorry, didn't proofread.

James Maxey said...

"Everybody is mixed, and therefore racial and ethnic barriers are barely anything other than some very surface differences."

This might wind up as another response that's longer than the original post. I confess that I'm not someone who has spend a great deal of my life pondering the question of race and ethnicity. A lot of my feelings on the matter are just that--feelings. People occasionally ask me about my long term family roots, and I'm always forced to confess that I don't know them beyond my great-great grandparents. They were living in the Appalachians then; where their ancestors came from I don't know and don't care.

I've never understood why people care where their ancestors were 200 years before. Why not 500 years? 5000? 50,000? Go back far enough, and we're all Africans.

When I look at the world, a lot of problems that people attribute to religion are actually problems of tribalism and ethnicity. Sunnis versus Shiites versus Kurds versus Turks, Jews versus Palistinians, Hutu's versus Tootsies, Catholics versus Protestants, Duke versus UNC.

Europeans once looked at the world and divided humanity into five master races. In some ways this was a big advance; there was a time when, if you were an alien census taker who could have visited ever single village on earth, you probably would have learned that humans divided themselves into a million or so races. The "others" weren't on distant continents; they were the people in the valley on the other side of the mountain, and the scary canibal race on the mountain beyond that, and then you got to the people with legs that bent backwards and feathers for hair.

The true woes of this world don't boil down to race so much as they do to tribalism. There was a time when there was probably a strong adaptive value to knowing your tribe and blindly hating others. When wars were decided by the latest spear technology, tribalism could only do so much harm. Now, though, you wind up with hyper-tribalism in a place like Pakistan, where eventually one of these tribes is going to control a nuclear arsenal.

I think that the brilliance of the American melting pot has been the long, slow breakdown of the tribal barriers. I joked about Duke vs. UNC earlier, but institutions like sports gave people a useful outlet for directing teen-age emotions; teenagers really seem hardwired into dividing the world into categories of who is in their tribe and who is hated outsider who must sit on the other side of the cafeteria.

So, I agree, for the most part, with Dave's arguments: Race divisions are arbitrary and increasingly difficult to justify as they blur in ever increasing degrees. Where I disagree is that, while all the arguments against seeing the world through racial filters are sound ones, the fact is that the vast majority of the world still uses these filters. I don't believe in God, but it doesn't mean I don't believe in religions. They are all around me; they are real. I may believe that we are all just humans with a shared origins on the plains of Africa, but the reality is that I'm surrounded by people who identify themselves as black, white, jew, Mongolian, and Tagalong. Telling them that they're mistaken about who they are just seems like a doomed cause. Of course, telling the believers of the world that there is no God is also a doomed cause, and I gladly embrace it. Perhaps I only have the energy for one doomed cause at a time.