On Aliens, SJWers, and the great internet click-bait beast

I have not written here in a while, but I was thinking about trends today.

So much of what makes Social Justice Warriorism that is making up an increasing amount of Slate, Atlantic, and the New Yorker vapid is not that it is concerned with social justice, it is that is reflecting the inability of people to understand the actual assumptions of the jargon they use (few of these people actually understand the stand point epistemology and its origins in the way they are framing things), and it does not require close readings of the text or history. In fact, it is reflects the vapidity of click-bait culture and reinforces it. What bothers me is that since it uses jargon even academics are familiar with its history are sharing and endorsing sloppy and lazy readings: the flippancy of net culture reflects up.  The quick and easy politics of aspiring-soon to be graduate students on tumblr has creeped into popular liberal writings without any backlash that is rigorous and fair.

An example of this is “Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People” by Noah Berlatsky.  Berlatsky actually has some interesting and worthwhile things to say about the analogies for and against colonialism in Science Fiction, and why it seems to be a central trope. Yet, he botches the argument by superficial readings, misreadings, and even factual inaccuracy in his analysis so badly and over.generalizes so much that his essential point is easily ignored.

Before I point out Berlatsky’s problems, let me point out a few very salient points that he does make:

“The fact that colonialism is so central to science-fiction, and that science-fiction is so central to our own pop culture, suggests that the colonial experience remains more tightly bound up with our political life and public culture than we sometimes like to think. Sci-fi, then, doesn’t just demonstrate future possibilities, but future limits—the extent to which dreams of what we’ll do remain captive to the things we’ve already done.”

This is a dead-on point, particularly in relationship to the historical development of the tropes Berlatsky wants to discuss:

“The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future. John Rieder in his eye-opening book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction notes that most scholars believe that science fiction coalesced “in the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century.” Sci-fi “comes into visibility,” he argues, “first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England” and then gradually gains a foothold in Germany and the U.S. as those countries too move to obtain colonies and gain imperial conquests. He adds, “Most important, no informed reader can doubt that allusions to colonial history and situations are ubiquitous features of early science fiction motifs and plots.” The iconic example of colonialism-inspired sci-fi is that most important of sci-fi stories, H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. As Rieder says, Wells begins his book with an explicit comparison of the Martian invasion to colonial expansion in Tasmania.”

Rieder’s argument about the relationship of early science stands, with one exception.  The development of early science fiction in late Tzarist Russia  and the early revolutionary Soviet Union, where science fiction represented a way past internal cultural colonization and modernization as much as colonial expansion.   Berlatsky does not seem to know this, however. In fact, Berlatsky does not seem to know many of the popular texts he is reference.   In a rather dismissive response, a blogger a spaceramblings points out many of Berlatsky’s mistakes.

Said blogger points out how much Berlatsky gets wrong: he seems to so wrong at points, he it is like he read inaccurate summaries of some of the pieces he is discussing:

“Take Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, about a totalitarian Britain conquered and occupied by Germany, in which native English people are second-class citizens. ”

Wait… what?

Did Berlatsky confuse Brazil with The Boys of Brazil? Did he even see the movie?



“So what to make of this colonial obsession? What does it mean that all of these novels and films, from War of the Worlds more than 100 years ago to Into Darkness in 2013, are powered by colonial inversion, a dream of Western imperial violence inflicted upon Westerners?”

I haven’t seen the latest Abrams Trek, but its star is a white British guy. The actual Khan viewed the Enterprise crew as inferiors, but wasn’t spending his time calling for the extermination of inferior races. He even married a biologically ordinary woman.

Which are valid points: In fact, in the original Star Trek, Khan’s name was Singh and it was implied he was an Aryan, in the sub-continent view of the world, but was basically created by eugenicists. He marries a biologically normal woman as is pointed out. The race relations reflect a more complicated view of colonialism than is being painted by Berlatsky, and if anything J.J. Abrams wanted to avoid this complication in his moving the character back to being a pasty white dude.

Berlatsky’s mistakes are actually worse than are stated by the spaceramblings post. For example, Berlatsky asserts
” Ender’s Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it.”

Not to defend Orson Scott Card, who is as right-wing as they come, but Speaker of the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, is about the how the invasion and the genocide was unnecessary and Ender devotes himself to speaking for them in their absence. Ender felt tricked into genocide. Again, not running counter to Berlatsky’s original thesis, but he does not seem to know it.

What Berlatsky has done is in affect not only opened his own reading up to dismissal but also more serious readings like that of Rieder. This is a common problem in the “SWJ” discourse, particularly as it is popularized and “legitimized” by magazines which desperately need facebook clicks and sharing, but are not as concerned with the intellectual accuracy of their content. Berlatsky is no idiot–it works he is more familiar with, he seems to be be on firmer ground and he has clearly read Rieder, but secondary source familiarity cannot make-up for clear errors in primary sources.

I have noticed both Salon and Atlantic seem to be much sloppier on basic fact-checking, and more more provocative in use of racial titles. Indeed, the counter-response outrage is also part of the strategy, it increases clicks. It works to get readers and to get pieces trending.

This has led to a shallow use of other politics modalities into liberalism that are underdeveloped and confusing. In a discussion about the way “allies” is used in intersectionality theory being fundamentally different from its usage pretty much every where else, the writer at Marmalade, did not know how to respond. He assumes a modern classically left-liberal “Enlightenment” definition, but did not understand the way social construction and privilege theory was being applied and the way ally here meant simply “unquestioning solidarity.” I have written a lot, even in his comments, about the dangers of this kind of reification, but even most of the so-called “SJWers” do not know the intellectual background in Lukacs and a post-structural feminist reading–in my view a problematic misreading–of Hegelian Marxism in these terms. They simply use them because they have been given simple activist definitions without the knowledge of the implied epistemological assumptions.

This is normal, but the use of the terms as click-bait increase the danger of both reification of these ideas counter to the claimed purpose of ending the “social construction” of such identities, and the endangering more subtle and sound arguments through vulgar jargonizing. While this was always a problem–way before the internet–the click bait culture of social media dramatically increases both the spread and superficiality of analysis.