Monday, March 25, 2013

That Power of Accurate Observation Is Called Political By Those Who Have Not Got It

I'm glad to say that most of the Amazon customer reviews for my new short novel, London Twist, have been positive.  Among the negative ones, there's an interesting theme:  that the story is either disturbingly pro-gay or disturbingly anti-drone, and in all events too liberal.  I think it's worth examining these claims, and the premises behind them.

1.  The Story Is Disturbingly Pro-Gay.  I suppose if someone in the story made a speech in favor of marriage equality, or if I depicted the unjust suffering of gays due to discriminatory laws, there might be a basis for the claim that the story is pro-gay.  In fact, the story involves (among other things) two straight women who, while circling each other on opposite sides of an espionage operation, find themselves attracted to each other, and wind up acting on that attraction.  It's hard for me to understand how depicting something like this could be pro-gay.  I'm guessing that some people find implicitly political a depiction of same-sex attraction and of gay sex itself?  In other words, if you don't try to deny the existence of homosexuality, or if you don't try to depict homosexuality in a negative light, you're doing something political.

There might actually be something to this view.  Because if marginalizing gays in fiction is political, then mainstreaming them must be political, too.  If depicting gay sex as immoral and unhealthy is political, then depicting it as normal and healthy must be political, too.

What's revealing, though, is that I don't think I've ever read a critique of a story that has no gay elements as "too pro-straight" or as "anti-gay."  I doubt, for example, that anyone has ever posted the "it's too straight" equivalent of this reviewer's thoughts:  "Eisler's usual good work. But I get a little bit tired of the social cheer leading for gays.  I hear and read enough of that stuff already."

I think what causes this odd reaction is this:  Prevailing political prejudices are rarely recognized as political at all -- an insidious blindness that permits one side to attack the other as "political" when in fact a more honest criticism would be "political in a manner that differs from my politics."  So if you're straight and would prefer to live in an all-straight world, fiction devoid of gays won't feel political to you.  It'll feel normal, comforting, a reflection of the world you take to be true.  But fiction with gay characters or gay sex?  Political!

By the way, I have to add that the odd phrase "pro-gay" is my attempt to paraphrase some of what's been written about the story.  In fact, I don't think of myself as pro-gay any more than I think of myself as pro-straight.  What I am is pro-equality-before-the-law.  And while certainly that means I'm not anti-gay (I'm not anti-straight, either), some people have a worldview in which if you're not anti-gay, you're pro-gay -- one more manifestation of the condition in which someone is blind to his own politics and finds "politics" at work only in those who disagree with or otherwise challenge his implicit assumptions.

2.  The Story Is Disturbingly Anti-Drone.  I have an easier time understanding the basis for this claim than I do for the "pro-gay" one.  After all, one character, Fatima, a Pakistani living in London who lost her two younger brothers as "collateral damage" in a drone strike, gives a speech at an anti-drone rally, and two other characters -- a Mossad operative and an MI6 operative -- discuss the way drone warfare increases hatred for the west.  So here, at least, critics can point to something more political than the mere possibility of a same-sex attraction or the depiction of gay sex.

But is it really particularly political to create a character who lost two brothers in a drone strike and is motivated to take revenge as a result?  After all, it's simply a fact that drone strikes kill civilians.  And it's simply a fact that making war on Muslim countries increases hatred against the west, as a 2004 Pentagon study, undertaken at Donald Rumsfeld's direction, concluded (did we really need an official study to figure out that bombing, invading, and droning people makes them hate us?  Apparently so).  Now, you can logically (if not persuasively) argue that the civilian deaths and hatred of the west are worth it, but you can't reasonably argue that the civilian deaths and hatred don't exist.  So I can only conclude that people who favor drone strikes as a response to our fears of terrorism would prefer to deny that drone strikes cause civilian deaths and hatred, and that such people therefore feel that to acknowledge that drone strikes in fact do cause civilian deaths and do produce hatred is to do something remarkably political.

Again, I wonder:  are stories depicting brown-skinned, dark-bearded Islamic fanatics trying to slaughter innocent Americans solely because they hate us for our freedoms typically criticized for being too political?  Not that I'm aware of.  And this is so because the "we're blameless, they hate us for our freedoms" narrative is the prevailing narrative in America today (easy to peddle because it flatters and comforts its audience), and because prevailing narratives aren't viewed as "political" by the people who've adopted them, but rather simply as "truth."  Only people who challenge that "truth" are guilty of committing politics.

In fairness, I think you could argue that any depiction in a novel of the causes of terrorism will be inherently and unavoidably political.  But what's interesting, again, is that charges of "too political" are typically leveled only in one direction.  What's even more interesting is *which* direction.  Because while there is actual, empirical, Pentagon-sponsored evidence in favor of the incredibly obvious proposition that people who are bombed, invaded, and droned tend to hate the people doing the bombing, invading, and droning, there is no evidence I'm aware of for the proposition that our policies have no causal connection to terrorism and that terrorists simply hate us for our freedoms.  So between depicting something evidence-based, obvious, and accurate on the one hand, and depicting an evidence-free, self-pleasuring fantasy on the other, which depiction is more fairly termed the "political" one?

It's enough to make you suspect that charges of "political!" might themselves be an insidious tool of propagandists, akin to charges of "bias" in journalism.  Because like bias -- which is just the accusatory form of the word "viewpoint" -- everyone's got politics, and there's really no way to avoid it.  Even trying to avoid being political is political.

But more commonly, I suspect what's going on is simply projection.  And more commonly still, just ignorance.  As the saying goes, "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity."

3.  The Story Is Disturbingly Liberal.  This is another one that's a little hard to figure out, given the absence from the novella of anything about abortion rights, a decent minimum wage, universal health insurance, or other such classical liberal issues.

Instead, at the heart of the story is an Israeli spy whose assignment is to get close to a Pakistani woman, learn the whereabouts of the woman's brother, and provide the brother's location to western governments so he can be killed.  During the course of that assignment, the spy increasingly comes to care about the woman and to feel increasingly ambivalent about the devastation her own actions will cause to the woman and the woman's family.  I'm not sure what would be liberal about such a storyline, but my guess is that anything that acknowledges the humanity of The Other, or that otherwise might render The Other sympathetic, is at the heart of this particular political transgression.  Or perhaps it's unacceptably political to depict any ambivalence on the part of western spies and soldiers about the efficacy of their means and the morality of their ends?  If so, you'd have to argue that only depictions of spies and soldiers untroubled by conscience can be deemed non-political.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I'd call a story like that worse than unrealistic.  I'd call it boring.

And of course it would still be political, too.

It's not that I don't think my stories are political.  They are -- that's why I call them political thrillers.  It's just that they're no more political than are stories faithfully depicting prevailing political narratives.  And while I don't mind my novels being criticized for being political, I do hope that people will recognize that on some level, probably *all* stories are inherently, unavoidably political, and that criticizing someone else's politics for being "political" while believing your own politics are nonexistent betrays an unfortunate lack of candor, or, more likely, a lack of self-awareness.

Another paraphrase, this one of George Bernard Shaw, who was referring to cynicism:  "That power of accurate observation is called political by those who have not got it."