Wed, May. 30th, 2007, 01:17 pm || Wiscon 31: Romance of the Revolution

add to memories

Description: In authors ranging from Heinlein to Macleod, Spinrad to Cordwainer Smith, the revolution is glorified — sometimes a violent one, sometimes (but far more rarely) a peaceful one. How do we avoid making the same errors of glorifying violence and hero worship when coming at things from a revolutionary perspective in fiction? (Some people may not find these to be errors — they're welcome to come discuss that POV too.)

Panelists: Paul Kincaid (mod), L. Timmel Duchamp, Laurie J. Marks, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Lyn Paleo

Just so people know what they're getting into, this is the panel that made my head explode, thanks to unthinking racism and Europe/America-centrism. I not-so-sarcastically note that I was completely unsurprised to see the two going hand-in-hand. So please note that this write up is going to be incredibly biased, that I am still angry about it, and that I didn't take down any notes or pay very close attention because my hands were shaking (as stated, I was angry) and because my head had just exploded.

Non-literally, for the anime and manga fans out there ;).

So I will have to rely on coffeeandink to provide more detailed quotes, as she was actually writing things down.

I originally went to this panel because I wanted to talk about the aftermath of the revolution, particularly in fiction, as I adore Lloyd Alexander's Westmark and Ursula K. Le Guin's Voices for dealing with that aftermath.

However, the panel ended up being on historical revolutions.

Mely later noted that the two of us were the youngest people in the room by far: one of the beginning annoyances was how quickly the panelists and the audience were to assert that the spirit of the sixties had died out and that the current generation was apathetic, capitalistic, and generally unconcerned with anyone but themselves. While I think the statement could be correct in some cases, I was irritated by how it was presented as fact without any attempts at nuance (both the generalization about my generation and the unthinking nostalgia and idealization of the sixties). It was also frustrating and anger-inducing because hi! I'm still waiting (and agitating) for my revolution!

The other thing that really, really, really pissed me off was that everyone (panelists and audience) only discssed European and American revolutions. Not only that, but they specifically only discussed white revolutions -- the Civil Rights Movement came up once, maybe twice.

Four out of five panelists were white, and I think Chris Nakashima-Brown may have been mixed race, due to his surname. Paul Kincaid was British; I think the rest may have been American, though I honestly don't recall.

The panel: Not only was this frustrating on a race level, it was incredibly sloppy. cofax7 immediately noted when I was ranting to her that focusing on European and American revolutions basically means having to look a few decades back, and often a few centuries.

But the most frustrating thing was that no one on the panel or in the audience seemed to even notice that they were basically excluding the majority of the world from their discussion. I can't remember what the panelists had said, but at one point I tried to yell out "Meiji Revolution!" only I don't think anyone heard (also, Mely said it sounded like "major revolution").

As another note, all these discussions of European and American revolutions focused on the revolutionaries and what they did, My sense was that they also tended to focus on "good" revolutions or revolutions that may have started out with good intentions but ultimately ended up failing. Revolutions that I remember being discussed: the feminist movement, the American Revolution, the French Revolution ("Which one?" asked a panelist), the revolution of the American 1960s, the Russian Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement (brief mention). I remember most of the discussion centering on the 60s and various sub-movements during that era and on the American Revolution.

I was fuming so much that I was shaking, which made knitting difficult. I originally wasn't going to even try and point out the European/American-centrism; it seemed completely useless. But then I figured I was going to scathingly write up the panel later in LJ and probably start the next new flamewar (LJ, I will love you forever if you prove me wrong), so I might as well attempt to wreak havoc there as well. It took a while for me to get called on, largely because I was sitting in the very back behind someone.

And before I talked, at least someone else mentioned being Muslim and revolution in the Middle East; I wish I could remember her comment more, but I was really, really angry.

I ended up asking the panel if they could discuss non-European, non-American revolutions, particularly how they might be affected by colonialism, post-colonialism and imperialism. I wanted to add a note to not talk about the Cultural Revolution, as I very cynically thought that the only non-European, non-American revolution familiar to everyone might be that. And, of course, I was preemptively irritated that while people could think of many "good" revolutions for Europe and America, the one they associated with Asia was a "bad" one.

(I note here that I am not judging the effects of the revolutions and am going by general popular perception.)

The panel did not disappoint.

Chris Nakashima-Brown was the first to comment, and he said something like, "I think Pol Pot had the right idea, you have to wipe out the adults and start from kids" (Mely has more accurate quotes). First of all: what the fucking fuck? Second of all: What the FUCKING FUCK? Third of all: I find that insulting on so many levels that I don't even know where to start. Fourth of all: Of course the top-of-the-head revolution associated with a non-European, non-American country is an atrocity. Fifth of all: What, the discussion of non-European, non-American countries starts off with "kill off all the brown people"?!

Thankfully, the panel and the audience seemed rather stunned as well. I think Lyn Paleo asked him if he was kidding. He sort of danced around what he was saying for a while, but never retracted it. I wish I had quotes.

After that, Paul Kincaid, who is British, very slowly and very thoughtfully talked about the Indian Revolution. He was spending so much time and thought picking out his words (and though I am angry, I do appreciate that he at least cared enough to think about it beforehand) that I first thought he was joking when he began with how India was a political mess before the British came in and that the British came in not with the intent to oppress people, but to trade.

I mean, seriously. I thought that he was going to then append his remarks and say that this was the textbook apologia for colonization and then remark that, of course, to the Indian people, it looked really different. Also, given what I know of British and other imperial countries' attempts to "trade" with countries, I wouldn't characterize it as trade, but more as exploitation.

But no. He continued to talk about how the British set up a tidy government and discovered to their surprise that the Indians could actually govern themselves (the part about "to their surprise" was sarcastic, thank goodness), and then he concluded with a note that the Indian Revolution succeeded not because of the strength of the revolutionaries, but because of the weakness of those being rebelled again. The quote that I have is: "It's not the revolution that's effective, but the weakness of the ruler." He said that had Great Britian not been distracted by other things at the time, India may very well still be under British rule even today.

I will note again that every single revolution discussed prior to this focused on the revolutionaries and their agency and what they did. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Until India came up.

Later, when I asked about this again, Kincaid mentioned that he thought that the success of revolutions depending on the weakness of the oppressors applied to all revolutions, so I will give him that, but I still think it is extremely telling that this point of view only came up when the focus shifted to non-European, non-American countries.

I can't quite remember what the panelists said after this; I was too busy scribbling down "WTFOMG?!" in my notebook. I think Lyn Paleo mentioned Venezuela, to which Chris Nakashima-Brown said, "But they're just a nation of slums, aren't they?"

L. Timmel Duchamp then talked about a revolution in Mexico that I really wish I had the details of, because it was interesting and possibly the only non-sporkworthy comment during the entire time.

After that, the discussion turned right back to European and American revolutions for some time.

When non-European and non-American revolutions came up again, the language changed completely. I remember audience members saying things about "giving" the opportunity to revolt or "allowing" revolution; the focus shifted so quickly from being about the revolutionaries and their agency to "permitting" non-European and non-American people to revolt that I barely had time to blink.

I also recall other comments to the effect of the American Revolution inspiring the world; Nakashima-Brown added another note in which a Muslim revolutionary compared himself to George Washington. While the second statement is factually correct (as far as I know because I was too angry to take notes), and while the first statement is true in some cases, it is so patronizing and condescending to relate all these non-European, non-American revolutions back to America, particularly when there were already remarks stripping colonized revolutionaries of their agency and when the entire discussion prior to my question had focused solely on excluding colonized revolutionaries.

Mely notes that someone also talked about the poverty of Africa and how "we" should help Africa without ever noting why Africa was in the state it was in, nor how the western world had profitted off of the subjugation and colonization of Africa for a few centuries. I put "we" in scarequotes because it was very clear that the "we" the panel and the audience were talking to and about was the middle-class white American and European we. They were not talking about me; they in fact did their best to exclude me from the discussion via rhetoric. I am not saying that the panelists deliberately excluded me from physically talking; I got called on to speak twice, probably because I was in the very back behind someone. But I am saying that the entire panel was phrased such that it excluded people of color. I mean -- one brief mention of the Civil Rights Movement? No talk about race at all in a panel about revolution?

My reaction: In case anyone had any doubt in their mind, I was and am really fucking pissed off. I am angry that I can still walk into a random panel, picked specifically because I thought I should go to something other than a discussion of race, and get metaphorically slapped in the face and told that once again, I do not belong because I am a person of color and because I have lived in a non-European, non-American country.

I am raising this as a racial issue because while the exclusion of non-European, non-American countries is not inherently racial, it has become racial because of racial lines of colonization and racial rhetoric encouraging imperialism.

Also, the discussion itself was very clearly polarized in terms of race: white revolutions got the bulk of the discussion, got an affirmation of agency, got a detailed look at their effects and how they influenced the world. Non-white revolutions were given the shaft, denied agency, and attributed to being inspired by white revolutions.

Mely mentioned that a lot of Americans really don't know much about non-American, non-European revolutions, or even much non-American, non-European history at that, not to excuse people, but just as an FYI. And I do think this is true. Why this is true is another matter all together, but one cannot really blame people for their education system.

But what pisses me off is that I don't think anyone in the room even noticed that they were excluding most of the world in their discussion. Ignorance is one thing, but you should at least know enough to know that you have gaps of knowledge. Also, the panelists had had time to research and to look things up.

I am angry about the lazy scholarship and generalizations. I also snarkily note that despite the self-congratulatory tone with regard to the revolutions of the sixties and the talk about my generation being capitalist and apathetic, I and the Muslim woman in front of me were the only ones there trying to challenge the status quo.

Ok, maybe my challenging the status quo didn't even come off as such. I gave up after my second question/comment, in which I noted that Kincaid's prior remark took agency away from the Indian Revolution. I wish now that I had not asked questions but instead flat-out stated that I found the description of the Indian Revolution offensive and that I was also disturbed by how quickly and easily once-colonized countries were yet again ignored and glossed over.

And while I was most offended by individual people's comments, aside from the general "WTF?" to Nakashima-Brown's comment on Pol Pot, I was also offended by the fact that aside from a few brief attempts (my own included), no one tried to redirect the conversation.

I am angriest because of how easy it was to have a panel solely on white revolutions, because even after the point was raised that all discussion was on Europe and America, no one actively tried to discuss other countries, aside from a few apologias, which I do not count as discussion at all. I am also angry because Kincaid and Nakashima-Brown thought it was ok to make their comments; I am angry that Kincaid had clearly put a lot of thought into his answer and still came out with something that glossed over the entire British occupation of India; I am angry that no one else really called them on it, so the general impression was that it was and still is ok to make comments like that.

Most of all, I am angry that I even have to type out this post and worry that I have to explain even more why I am angry.

ETA: Nakashima-Brown's explanation of what he meant and L. Timmel Duchamp's write up and follow-up

ETA2: transcript (partial; I think it starts somewhere in the middle of the panel)