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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » "Egalitarian crap"

   
Author Topic: "Egalitarian crap"
babygears81
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Hey everyone,
I was reading Sherman Alexie's blog the other day (one of my favorite authors)and he was talking about how there hadn't been a young native writer to break from the crowd since Susan Power in 1996. Then, he said this:

"I would guess that, if and when a new Native American writer becomes a star, she or he will be writing science fiction. Will it be great science fiction or egalitarian crap?"

I don't read much science fiction, so I'm hoping you all can tell me what he meant by egalitarian crap. I know what the word egalitarian means, but this doesn't help my understanding at all. Maybe it makes more sense to avid sci fi readers? What are your thoughts?

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MattLeo
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I suspect it tells you more about Sherman Alexie than it does about science fiction. As you no doubt know, Alexie was born with a double-whammy against him: poor on the reservation and with hydrocephalus (water on the brain).

I don't think he's against treating everyone with respect and dignity; I suspect he's against that happy facade people slap over life where they pretend everyone gets along just fine and injustice is an aberration. Overcoming adversity is such a satisfying story outcome that when faced with someone who has done so in real life, people reduce that person to his adversity. They smugly reassure themselves that "it was all worth it".

If there's any sci-fi that exemplifies this kind of wish fulfillment, it's *Star Trek*, which depicts a fantasy future in which human nature is entirely vindicated (except for a few colorful characters like Harry Mudd). If an American Indian appears in such a future, he is certain to embody numerous noble savage tropes, thus suggesting "it was all worth it." There is no sense that the descendants of Indians who lost their land and independence in the encounter with European civilization lost anything enduring. On the contrary that set their feet on the road to apotheosis.

People don't see how patronizing that is. The screenwriters of *Dances with Wolves* thought they were flattering the Lakota by writing a story in which they became like brothers to a white man, which was a good thing for them because they needed a white man *to teach them how to fight*.

In a way my favorite movie Indian (aside from those in a few actual Indian-made movies like Alexie's own *Smoke Signals* -- highly recommended), is Wes Studi's Magua, from the Daniel Day Lewis version of *Last of the Mohicans*. Contrasted with the bland, doomed nobility of Uncas and Chingachgook, Magua's furious villainy gains a kind of dignity. That's one movie Indian at least who dared to rage against the dying of the light.

Seriously, watch *Smoke Signals*, which Alexie wrote. It's not a downer, but the Indians in it aren't reduced by liberal white guilt to paragons.

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babygears81
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Thanks MattLeo! That makes perfect sense! I am familiar with all things Alexie and have seen Smoke Signals. Great movie. I read the book it was based on too.

Magua was totally badass and my favorite character in that movie too. I come from a family full of crazy Indians,( I mean crazy in an endearing way) and that is why I love Alexie's characters. They keep it real. I did not however, have that insight into science fiction (your example with Star Trek) and that was most enlighting. Thanks for chiming in!

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extrinsic
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Adding to points MattLeo makes, the "egalitarian crap" is an imposed ideal from the negative side of multiculturalism's celebrations of and respects for cultural diversity. In that a feature of multiculturalism as a school of thought and literary movement appropriates and, unfortunately at times, malappropriates unique cultural identities, "egalitarian crap" dilutes and homogenizes cultural diversity.

Human beings' differences are what makes life vigorous, and interesting, perhaps at times too interesting. The Chinese curse, which seems like a blessing on the face of it, "May you live in interesting times," speaks loudly to the value and complications of diversity.

A diluted and homogenized Native Nation person is a stereotype or set of stereotype, stock character, or archetype character characteristics. The idioms and idiosyncracies that mark unique, individual identities are given short-shrift or left out. It's lazy writing, on one hand; on the other hand, it's appealing to mass culture audiences' preconceived notions for commercial intents.

Why have a Native Nation character in the first place if the role isn't unique to the specific cultural identity? Same with other identity groups. Female characters? Western Black? Jewish? Oriental? Heavyset? Emotional condition? The character might as well be the default heroic WASP adult male if no character emphasis influences meaning and intent.

But Western culture is diverse. No way around that. Not a melting pot of culturally assimilated and acclimated beings but a roiling muddle--the stew--of different textures, consistencies, contrasts, geometries, temperaments, and savory, sweet, salty, and bitter tastes.

[ August 09, 2012, 10:16 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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babygears81
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Well said extrinsic. I was trying too hard to make his comments specific to science fiction, when in fact, "egalitarian crap" can be found in any genre. That's what threw me off, I guess. I didn't understand. You and Matt have made it clear. Thanks for commenting.
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rcmann
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Why is WASP male considered default? I AM a (mostly) WASP male, and my characters do not default to my own gender, ethnic group, or religion. Not because it's necessarily appropriate or required by the plot or setting either. Just because it's as boring as watching a politician talk, writing characters that simply replicate yourself and/or your kindfolk. If you can't use your writing to stretch your imagination, why bother?
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
Why is WASP male considered default? I AM a (mostly) WASP male, and my characters do not default to my own gender, ethnic group, or religion. Not because it's necessarily appropriate or required by the plot or setting either. Just because it's as boring as watching a politician talk, writing characters that simply replicate yourself and/or your kindfolk. If you can't use your writing to stretch your imagination, why bother?

I think we've had this discussion recently from a different perspective. http://www.hatrack.com/ubb/writers/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=007376
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rcmann
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Indeed. But it does cut in both directions.
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Robert Nowall
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Don't know Sherman Alexie, so I can't say for sure anything about him or his works or opinions.

But I do know that a writer making insert group here, ethnic or otherwise exceptionally noble can be wearying on the reader. Despite what is sometimes said, somebody can have flaws, from a flawed hero to an out-and-out-black-hearted villain, despite what group he might appear to be part of.

(I'd go into specific detail about specific groups and problems in portraying them in writing or elsewhere---something I've heard called the Sam Moskowitz Syndrome comes to mind---but the discussion would likely get out of hand and ugly. I'll see how things develop.)

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extrinsic
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A recent workshop piece presented elsewhere got me thinking. A secondary character is portrayed in a negative light for giggles and guffaws' sake. Though I'm not a part of the identity group, I was unsettled. The character is portrayed as a butt of a joke stereotype. I voiced my concerns, garnering the scorn and contempt of the complement, who found the character hilarious and that hilarity prevailed rather than the narrative's meaning itself, excepting the silent writer on the hot seat.

I was unprepared for the objections to my concerns, though I should have been. Questions of decorum always raise contentions. Huh? Decorum? What's that? Don't know. Don't care. Won't bother.

Investigation and research led me to answers. Now I'm prepared for the next time a workshop piece strays into socially insensitive areas.

It's not that people or even identity groups aren't flawed. Flaws and frailties are identity markers along with noble and selfless identity markers. Nor that "out-and-out-black-hearted" villains are out of bounds now or ever. It's when a character is cast as a representative of an entire identity group without unique identity markers that make the character a distinctive individual that objections arise.

Not just my objections. No one of the narrative's joke character's identity were present. I have, however, encountered objections for one reason or another in the public conversation: racist, sexist, age-ist, ethnic, and writing the Other identity ridicule for the sake of perpetuating propoganda.

A fundmental writing principle is a solution: be as specific as possible, or as Ms. Dalton Woodbury comments occasionally, provide the "telling" details. Not "telling" as in show and tell's recital summary or explanation. Portray a few exquisite details that express uniqueness and in a few well-chosen words capture a quintessential essence; for character development, setting, plot, idea, event, and discourse development.

[ August 09, 2012, 11:34 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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It's interesting that this topic has come up again. Like others, I think it's better left to other types of websites. There just doesn't seem much to gain by discussing it here.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
Why is WASP male considered default? I AM a (mostly) WASP male, and my characters do not default to my own gender, ethnic group, or religion... If you can't use your writing to stretch your imagination, why bother?

Well, this is an interesting problem. Mostly you don't need to bring up somebody's religion because that's not usually relevant to the story. But a certain uniformity in *attitude* and *culture* tends to be the default for most writers.

I'll pick on Star Trek again, for no good reason. Star Trek is a center-left middle class utopia. The people all sound like they come from a certain kind of suburb -- one full of affluent professionals who are idealistic when they think about it, which isn't that often. A town with fantastic playgrounds and top-notch schools; possibly a college town.

I live in a town very much like that. Not a college town and maybe a little more Republican-leaning and business-oriented, but an alien anthropologist would find it hard to distinguish from Startrekville. But I didn't grow up here. I grew up in an urban, multi-ethnic, working class neighborhood. We had Portuguese factory workers whose fathers had been fishermen; Haitians, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans and Jamaicans. Why did the Jamaican mom not like her daughter's new boyfriend, the doctor? Because he only had one job. People from Startrekville don't get that joke.

Everybody was *something* besides generic American; mostly Irish, Portuguese and Italian, but Swedes, Poles and Jews too. We played baseball and football, but also soccer (only on the street with somebody's uncle, whose ball handling made all the kids feel re-tah-did). We told ethnic jokes right to people's faces and had good-natured rock fights that often sent kids to the emergency room for stitches.

My neighborhood had the Irish Mob and the Mafia, and countless Mafia wannabes. The wiseguys were really patriotic; on the 4th of July they'd drive their big Cadillac boats onto the playgrounds and give out ice cream. The windows were tinted, and the air conditioning! I remember when they opened the doors a blast air would come out, so cold it'd make you flinch. The Irish mob was quieter, and vicious. They drank in dim bars which were on the first floor but had the kind of short windows you put in the foundation to let light into the basement. Years later I found out the autobody shop I used to pass on the way to the city pool was where they tortured people who crossed them, after which they'd dissolve them in a tub of acid. And those guys never forgot a name or face -- it was uncanny.

What's my point? My point is none of those kinds of people live in Startrekville. To my ear everyone from Startrekville sounds the same. Even the bad guys talk like they're preppies putting on working class airs. They *think* the same. Even when they disagree, they agree about what to disagree over.

Now I don't want to knock Startrekville. I write for readers who come from there, and I get most of my cast from there. But no matter what color you make a Startrekville boy's skin, no matter what ethnic name you slap on him, underneath he's still from Startrekville. There are no Poles or Eye-talians in Startrekville. One startling thing I've noticed is that there apparently aren't any Jews there either. That's remarkable when you consider how important Jews are in the real world, especially in science related professions. It makes me wonder what the writers of TOS thought all the Jews would be gone by the year 2167.

In truth, I suspect the polite, educated, middle-class people of 2167 would seem very strange to us today, inexplicable, if not uncouth. They wouldn't fit in with the nice people of Startrekville. But by projecting the culture of white middle-class American suburbs upon all the people of the future, it raises the distinct possibility there are no more Jews or Jamaicans, Poles or proles in the future. That's a dilemma, because bad as leaving these people out of the future is, portraying them *ignorantly* is worse.

[ August 09, 2012, 11:49 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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I like to think society has progressed beyond Startrekville. Appropos of its time, though, and commercial necessities, cultural assimilation was still a social force and production costs necessitated appealing to a broad but singular culture base.
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Robert Nowall
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No reason not to pick on Star Trek---their utopia was kinda hard on the nerves, I always thought. (The poker game seen every-so-often on "Next Generation" drove me nuts---you never saw any of them with money, so what were they betting?)

I read that one of the reasons they did "Deep Space Nine" was to show a set of people who didn't get along as well with each other as the "Next Generation" crew...I never watched it regularly so I don't know how well that worked out for them...

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rcmann
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The original Star Trek wasn't as bad as TNG in terms of mindless utopia-ism. Deep Space 9 tried to present a realistic approach, but they couldn't quite get there because of the crap that TNG had already laid down as canon. The concept that a viable human society could be based on nothing more than each individual striving to become a better person for the GOOD OF ALL is... yeah.

Enterprise, being set in a time much closer to our own, was more realistic. It was still produced by the same people but they weren't quite a ridiculous about it.

Even in the middle class though, things aren't really vanilla. Most people who can claim membership in the american middle class didn't necessarily start their lives there. And the ones who are there have different situations. A middle class lawyer looks at things differently than a middle class skilled tradesman. Neither of them regard the world the same was as a self-employed small business owner. Even when all three might bring home roughly equivalent incomes.

There's also a lot of misconceptions. Recall after a certain plumber asked a certain politician an embarrassing question during the last election cycle. One thing that struck me (blue collar background here) is the disdainful, even arrogant way that the talking heads dismissed out of hand the idea that a plumber might open his own business and make a quarter of a million dollars a year. Obviously, they haven't hired a plumber recently. Those guys charge more per hour than some lawyers. With a staff of maybe half a dozen workers, a plumbing company can easily clear that much or more.

But the idea of a man who works with his hands making as much money, or even more money, than an intellectual was more than their snobbish minds were capable of wrapping themselves around.

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Robert Nowall
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I can think of a couple of recent "egalitarian crap" events and opinions...but I fear the danger of veering too close to "discussing politics," which is verboten. (Not a complaint---there are plenty of places where I can discuss it, and issues over it was one reason I walked away from the Internet Fan Fiction community I used to hang out in.)

One justification of Star Trek is that, considering the presence and behavior of aliens, from Spock on down to that murderous gaseous cloud thing in "Obsession," that "ethnic variety" might seem of somewhat less importance to the humans therein.

(One "ethnic" thing. In "Next Generation," the bald guy they called the captain was supposed to be French, and they planned to highlight it and play it up...but, after a few episodes and a few lines, they just gave it up. In retrospect, I think they abandoned it because it didn't fit their view of the Star Trek universe...)

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rcmann
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It always tickled me that the French captain spoke with a British accent. And everyone else spoke with a generic American accent, no matter what planet they were from.
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extrinsic
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Not only Hollywood homogenous accents but Hollywood homogenous and neuter dialects as well. I'm unsettled when a New York City setting doesn't have New York accent and dialect characters, or Midwestern characters or Southren or Valley Girl or Hindi or Hispanic or Canadian or Italian or Jamaican or whatever English second langauage dialects and so on. Not to mention a dearth of feminine dialects. But that's Hollywood homogeneity. What Hollywood casting and producing and directing and acting believe appeals most broadly and is most broadly accessible.

All that would be needed to make a difference is a few well-chosen idiom and idiosyncracy cues that signal and mark identity. The popularity of screenplays what gots diverse and exotic accents and dialects ought to tell them knuckletoes a think or two.

Maybe socially engineering assimilation is a Hollywood duty. Maybe it's a way to make mass culture more profitable by training audiences to acculturate to some preconcieved notion of easy-access normal. Maybe it's both and more. Probably.

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Robert Nowall
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I've noticed the decline of the ethnic type in movies / TV, too...an actor I've been spotting again lately in this-and-that is one J. Pat O'Malley, whose appearance was that of an aging cherubim, but whose acting career might be summed up in two words: "professional Irishman." It always seemed that, even if it wasn't directly defined, the characters he played always came across as Irish. You don't see much of that anymore---the custom started to die out around the time O'Malley did.

Another accent thing: in the older Roman sword-and-sandals epics, at least the higher-classed ones (Spartacus, Ben-Hur), the accents of the Romans were almost all upper-class British, where the accents of their slaves were American. I don't know how much that conceit is followed these days (I haven't seen any of the more recent "S & S" movies, like Gladiator), so I don't know if it survives.

And that's one I wonder how dubbing a print with a non-English language handled it---or even if they handled it...

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