Category Archives: A Writing Life

465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.

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464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.

463. Shooters

The University of Texas Tower
photo by Larry D. Moore

===============

Today in Serial, a school shooting occurs in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key. Here in A Writing Life I have explained why it was there.

Yesterday in the world we all inhabit, another school shooting took place in Florida. Since the post below was written a week or so ago, this makes an unexpected and jarring contrast.

I could say, “What are the chances of such a coincidence?”, but the chances of a school shooting on any given day have increased dramatically since I was forced to include one in my novel thirty years ago. As always, I feel for the victims and the survivors, and like everyone else, I have no answers.

I am adding this note of explanation about an hour after the original post appeared.

===============

The original post.

Most American’s alive today have grown up in an era of mass shootings. We had not yet reached that point in 1966.

I was working on the home farm that summer. I had graduated from high school and was waiting to enter college in the fall.

On August first, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother, then took weapons to the observation deck of the main tower at the University of Texas. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he shot and killed thirteen people on the ground below and wounded another thirty-one; two of his victims died later. He was eventually killed by police.

Like the rest of America, I heard about it on the news. It was a shock. It was something that had not happened before.

Whitman’s position on top of the tower made it hard for the police to get to him. That was not an accident; Whitman was a former Marine sharpshooter. He knew his business.

There are several talking points in this incident for people on both sides of the gun control controversy. None of his weapons would be called an assault rifle by modern use of that term. Several civilians joined the police in returning fire. They probably helped, but did not prevent the tragedy.

It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, at the time. Today it ranks eighth.

Twenty-three years later, the Texas Tower shooting still ranked seventh. I was teaching school and writing Symphony in a Minor Key in the evenings. I had set myself the task of writing events in my imaginary middle school in exact correspondence to what was happening in the real world.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five students at a school in a nearby town, and wounded thirty others, including a teacher. I was faced with the decision of whether or not to include this tragedy in the novel I was writing.

I chose to write it in. That is why today’s post in Serial appears as it does.

462. The N Word

Another version of this post, with the same poem, appeared as 86. N —-

The N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. Including me.

I could write it out plainly. In fact, I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, especially since I used it in a post just a week ago, and will again in the poem below. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.

I grew up white in a community which had no blacks. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see? Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes.

I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear. If you study black-white relations in America, it is amazing how much fear there is on both sides. I certainly had my share, and I hated having it. But I couldn’t shake it, until I wrote and published this poem. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.

          Mother Tongue

               I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.

In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.

               Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.

*****

When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.

Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.

It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . .,  but I cannot!

I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.

461. Undesirables

Emigrants statue, Helmsdale, Scotland, commemorating the eviction of Highlanders from their land. A father and child and, hard to see in this photo, the mother looking back at her home which she will never see again.

Black History Month is human history month. I’ll have plenty to say about the position of blacks in America, but today they are not the most threatened group. As I write this, Congress is fighting over DACA.

Two Christmases ago I wrote a fictional story about a little girl who was going underground with her parents because Donald Trump had become president. One of my readers replied with a short fictional addition in which one of my characters said, “If only our parents had followed the law, we would be all right.” That reader had a right to his opinion, and I published his reply. I’m not here to disrespect him. I am here to disagree with him. Strongly.

Deportation is a kind of eviction. Eviction is the act saying, “You can’t stay in this place any more, because the rights to this place belong to someone else.” That someone is usually a person or a corporation. Deportation makes the same statement, except that the someone else is you and me.

Eviction is old. It has been around since Og the caveman kicked his mate’s brother out of the hut. It wasn’t long after that before force of boot was traded for force of law.

Between 1710 and 1850 in northern Scotland, Scots who had lived on their lands for hundreds of years were forced off, their houses burned, and their livelihoods destroyed. It was all quite legal. Scotland had become an adjunct nation to England, de facto. Ancient laws had been misrepresented and changed to match an English model. Clan chiefs, whose existence was traditionally enmeshed in reciprocal obligations with their clan, were now seen as landowners.

It equivalent to Donald Trump shifting his legal position from President of the United States to owner of the United States, but on a smaller scale.

These “landowners” forced their clansmen off the land, sometimes with great violence. In early clearances, they were moved to undesirable lands within Scotland. When this failed, later clearances moved them off to the Americas.

In Ireland, during the Famine, undesirable Irishmen were moved out by eviction or allowed to starve in place. Most of them went to the Americas.

It was a pretty practical solution. If you don’t want undesirables around, send them to America. Ironic, isn’t it, that those undesirables’ descendants are now about to evict a new set of undesirables from America.

Meanwhile in America, the American Indians . . . but you know that story. If you don’t, check out 247. The People’s President.

You may not realize that in 1941, all those undesirable Japanese with their rich farms in California were moved into relocation camps. It was supposed to be for our protection, because they might attack from within. Maybe; but if so, why did they never get their farms back. (266. The Other War)

So let’s get back to DACA. This is an act protecting persons brought to the United States illegally as children. They are American in every way but a technicality. They may well not speak any language other than English. They may never have stepped foot outside the United States.

Now we are going to send them home. Home? They are home.

Let’s consider a pair of hypothetical children. Jose was born in Mexico, an hour before his parents crossed the border illegally into the United States. Ramon’s parents were on the same trip north, looking for work. Ramon’s mother gave birth just an hour after they crossed the border, illegally, into the United States.

We’ll let Ramon stay. He is a citizen. We’ll deport Jose. That’s fair, isn’t it.

Maybe, but . . .

What about (hypothetical) Barta Kovacs? He was brought over in 1956 by his parents, who were refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. Today he is 64 years old. He never married, but he spent thirty years as a school teacher, rising to be principal of a local high school before running for office. He has been a State Senator in one of those northern states for eleven years, and now he’s ready to retire.

However, as he applied for Social Security it was discovered that there had been an irregularity in his application for citizenship years before. Technically, he has never been a citizen, even though he has spent 62 of his 64 years here, and has no memory of Hungary.

Will the present administration deport him back to Hungary? I don’t think so.

Good thing our hypothetical Barta Kovacs wasn’t Mexican.

460. White World

“Welcome to Black History Month,” said the old white guy.

You might wonder what I know about black history. The answer is, actually, quite a bit. I was a teenager during the height of the civil rights movement. I wasn’t involved, but I was watching and learning.

I grew up in Oklahoma in the fifties. That isn’t the South, but it’s close enough. We didn’t have blacks-only facilities in my town, because we didn’t have blacks. There were blacks in Tulsa where we shopped, and a few in Claremore, the county seat, but not in the rural areas I inhabited.

We called them negroes in polite conversation, but niggers most of the time. Sorry. It hurts my fingers to type that word, but I’m not going to lie to you. Nowadays, I use the term blacks because that is what they chose for themselves in the sixties. African-American came later, along with Native American. Both those terms sound to me like something made up by embarrassed white guys. I’ll stick with blacks, because that is what blacks wanted to be called when I first became fully aware of them as real people.

When I was very young, I didn’t have much of an opinion. I had never met a black person. There was one black man who farmed somewhere in the area. I saw him go by in his pickup once in a while, but that was as close to a black person as I had been.

I had also never met a Jew. I had never met a Spanish speaker, nor an Italian, nor a Mormon. Certainly not a Muslim; actually, I had never heard of Muslims. There was one Catholic boy who attended our school briefly. He wasn’t well treated and he didn’t stay long.

We didn’t have segregation. We had apartheid. I just didn’t know it at the time.

You get the picture. Not just white — WHITE. And not just Protestant, but Southern Baptist. And not just Southern Baptist, but small-town-Southern-Baptist; not like those liberals down in Tulsa. There were so many Baptists in town that the local high school didn’t have a prom.

That’s who I was when I was at ten. That’s not who I was by the time I was fifteen.

When those black people down south went marching, and were met with clubs and dogs and firehoses — when my father (and everybody else’s father) said it was their own fault, I couldn’t buy it. When I saw them bloodied and beaten, yet standing firm for freedom and dignity, I knew they were right and we were wrong.

When they fought for their own freedom, they also gave this Oklahoma white boy his freedom. They gave me a new way of looking at the world, and I am grateful to this day.

So the first year I was blogging, I wrote a month’s worth of posts on civil rights. Check any post between January 18, 2016 and February 18, 2016 if you want to see them. Last year I didn’t try to repeat myself. I had said everything I had to say.

This year, everybody who doesn’t look like me is in jeopardy all over again.

I’m an American white male. I have all the civil rights in the world. I also have an obligation to see that I am not the only one who has them.

So here I go again. Welcome to Black History Month.

459. Steampunk Research, 2017

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The best thing about doing novel research on a computer is that you have access to the world, instantly and right on your desktop.

The second best thing about doing research on a computer is that you don’t have to copy things down longhand.

I am very careful to respect the rights of other writers, especially on copyright issues. However, those rules don’t necessarily apply to copying into your own research notes to be considered, modified, used for inspiration, and not quoted.

You can’t copy everything you find on the internet, no matter how useful. Sometimes you have to bookmark. I found an 1868 map of London which I returned to a hundred times. It lives on Safari, along with bookmarks for thirty other websites I have used. A few of those which would be of general interest to steampunk fans and authors are: Beyond Victoriana, All Things Victorian, Historical Emporium (even if you don’t buy the clothes they sell), and The Victorian Web. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Another map from Wikimedia Commons was available in jpg. It lives on my desktop, along with a number of maps, coats of arms, and photographs whose jpgs could be snagged.

Whenever I copy from the internet into a word processor program, I always also copy the URL.

Most of what exists in the folder for The Cost of Empire consists of things I have written myself. I would guess that my character, historical, and world building notes probably run about half as many words as the novel itself.

So how can we keep track of all this?

I explained about keeping track of the chapters two posts ago, and about the nitty gritty of ordering last post. Now let’s tie it all together.

Here is a low-fat version of what my folder looks like, with 11 files instead of 77. It starts with important research files, then has chapters, and ends with less important research files.

  changes (notes on changes planned)
 Delhi Durbar Ebook ( excerpts from an Ebook)
 Final Timeline
 Sleeves, color (on uniform sleeves, color denotes rank)
0.1 chapter outlines
1 “Tick tick”
20 “Death of an Airship”
American submarines (notes)
Naphtha engine (excerpts on the real thing along with how I modified them)
The German War (I made it up, but I had to write a history of it to keep track)
zTimeline

You may not see it, but there are two spaces before “  changes”, and one space before each of the next three file names. The three file names after that begin with numbers. The last four begin with letters.

Here’s why it is done that way. The computer puts numbers (in numerical order) on the top of the stack. Letters (in alphabetical order) come next. However, a space comes above anything else.

If you want your most important files to be above your chapters, put a space in front of their titles. If you want one of them to be at the very top, put two spaces in front of that title. Once a file is no longer a priority, don’t throw it away. Put a “z” as the first letter in the title and it will drop all the way to the bottom.

“zTimeline” is an early attempt; I didn’t want it at the top where I might use it by accident, but I also didn’t want to lose track of my original thoughts on the order of in which things happened.

It’s amazing how simple this is in practice, and how well it works.