On Culture War

“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” — von Clausewitz

The term “Culture War”, as far as I can tell, has its roots about 45 years after von Clausewitz was writing; the Kulturkampf between the Prussian government (specifically, Otto von Bismarck) and the Catholic Church.

But as something in American culture, it’s dating back to 1991.  And, like so many Wars on /against Abstract Nouns, calling it a war is both a) incorrect and b) unhelpful.

(I know that in part I should shut up here, since the Culture War is mostly being fought by people who are attacking me, and I should let them keep wasting their energy; but the culture war has caused more than its fair share of collateral damage, and I would really prefer that to stop.)

“Men are always more inclined to pitch their estimate of the enemy’s strength too high than too low, such is human nature.” — von Clausewitz

I’m going to take, for this discussion, one particular example: The various Puppy factions in SFdom, specifically around the Hugos of this year. (For a good roundup, I suggest starting here: http://fanlore.org/wiki/Puppygate. File770.com has an ongoing set of threads for those who prefer primary sources, but as with most such, it requires some digging to get at what’s really going on.)

Leader of the Rabid Puppy slate Vox Day (a.k.a. Ted Beale) has explicitly called this a culture war against “SJWs” in SF/F, starting with the Hugo Awards.  Tom Kratman has expressed his desire to see the awards burn to the ground.  John C. Wright (the most-nominated of the Rabid Puppies) repeatedly refers to his ideological enemies as Morlocks, and describes them in vile and unforgiving terms.

These people want to fight a culture war in SF, and make no bones about it.  One of the reasons they wish to do so is that they see a Social Justice Warrior conspiracy against them, and feel that they are fighting for survival — as if SF is a giant Thunderdome, and only one strain will survive.

Now, look at the above quote; I believe we can safely score one for Clausewitz there.

It is surprising, and more than a tad saddening, that SF/F writers seem to have completely lost a sense of scale.  Samuel R. Delany made it clear to anyone who read just how big a world is, in Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, and if you read the afterward to Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks, you’ll get another hint of the kind of scale SF works at.

Why do I bring this up? Because the Rabids (as I shall now refer to Beale, Wright, and Kratman, as the primary voices) as well as the Sad Puppies (a more “moderate” group spearheaded by Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson) seem to believe that SF, on this planet, on this time, isn’t big enough for diverse works. That Kratman’s MilSF can’t co-exist with Tiptree winners, that Wright’s religiously-drenched screeds can’t co-exist with, say, Charlie Stross’ Laundry novels.

Ask them this directly, and most of them (Beale excepted, because he’s a whole different level of wrong) would deny that’s what they want. But it’s what they’ve set themselves up for by defining this as a war; “To introduce into the philosophy of War itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity” — our good friend Clausewitz, again.

And so we have a war — vs. “SJWs”. Who have, though no one has been able to present significant evidence in favor, supposedly Taken Over The Hugos and plan to Destroy All Badthink SF. (We will merely note as a sidebar here that Puppies frequently argue that the sales figures for Baen Books, who publish many puppies, are very strong, therefore they deserve more Hugos. How the SJWs who are supposedly destroying SF are powerful enough to do so, while Baen still outsells them (allegedly), is one of those contradictions one is, I suppose, not supposed to point out — though it is one of the key contradictions of the notion of Culture War, which we will get to later.)

Be that as it may; we have the brave Puppies and their ilk preparing to fight a culture war against the SJWs, just as some portions of the amorphous bunch known as #gamergate are claiming they will do.  It’s war, folks, so grab your bayonets and charge!

“Blind aggressiveness would destroy the attack itself, not the defense.” – von Clausewitz

But does it have to be viewed that way? Of course not. To pick an example totally at non-random, when Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy felt that SFnal awards were not representing the kind of fiction they wanted, and they wanted to help it — they founded the Tiptree award, and funded it with bake sales.

That’s not war; that’s finding a niche and filling it. Call it evolution, or call it the market in action. 🙂

But what the Puppies have done is declared unilateral war on a target they can’t define (beyond, perhaps, the “I know it when I see it” definition akin to Potter Stewart’s of obscenity) — which seems to me to put them at great length of charging, bayonets out, into uncharted territory, with the usual disastrous effect.

Because what it does, since they can’t define their enemy to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them, is make them look foolish to people outside their pre-existing network of allies & friends.  Which is not the way to win a culture war (but more on this later.)

“If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object.” – von Clausewitz

This, I suspect, is the dictum that the Puppies (the rabid in particular) are attempting to follow — that now that they are not weak, they must attack. (Clausewitz discusses at great length the moral and morale aspects of war, and it is clear that events like #gamergate and the previous battles in atheist circles have provided a level of momentum to wannabe culture warriors on the right, far right, and looney right.)

The Puppies have long felt that they were under attack — and, by some definitions, they were. But the attacks they were suffering from were those that many people would not object to — the loss of unearned privilege, the driving back from pre-existing overwhelming borders.

Part of this can be seen in the culturewarrior’s own reactions to a single essay: John Scalzi writing on “Straight White Male is the Easiest Difficulty Level.”  Every time I have so much as breathed a hint of that essay, and its theme (trying to explain privilege to gamers in terms of difficulty levels — all the while acknowledging that there is difference in the skills of players, differences in the places one can start, doing everything reasonable to assuage the “But, but, but I am not privileged!” crowd) — it’s been like throwing a nice big brick of sodium into the pond. Heads spin, fire is breathed out upon the page, shells are retracted into and I am marked with a giant red S (for Scalzi-sympathizer, I suppose.)

And if that is a huge attack, given all of its carefully-stated limitations, exceptions, etc., just walking through the modern-day world must, indeed, feel like an attack to many of the culture warriors.

Now, however, they feel (it seems) like they’ve found a target they can attack — the Hugos. (And also some outposts of game design, etc., but I am trying to stay focused.)  And so they do switch from defense to attack — and fail to realize that their attack isn’t getting them where they want to go.

“Obstinacy is a fault of temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow.” — von Clausewitz

Of the Rabids, Mr. Beale, as the official “leader” — as in he posted the slate, and said (paraphrased) “If you respect my opinion on SF/F, you will vote this slate exactly” — is the most exemplary.  John C. Wright has his own private obsessions, and displays the kind of overwhelming binary thinking one would expect of a culture warrior, but he is more figurehead (as probably the best writer among the Rabids) than a useful leader. Tom Kratman appears to exist in a world where poking him elicits the outpouring of spines and virtual ink, like some kind of hilarious cross between a sea urchin and a cuttlefish — hilarious, that is, until he starts tossing around vile insults and thinly-veiled threats.

But let us consider Mr. Beale, the one who’s explicitly said “This is a war”, the one who’s advocated burning the Hugos down if his side doesn’t “win” — and then proclaiming that burning them down is also a win.

Then consider the quote above.

Beale has often presented as one of his qualifications for leading this particular fight that he’s a wargamer, and therefore knows how to think ahead, how to plan, how to strategize. I’ve also been a warmer since I was 7, which is quite a few years ago, and I can look at this war, and tell him flat out, “Ted, that experience is useless.”

Because in a culture war, you can’t win by breaking the enemy’s (presuming there is a singular enemy) capability to wage future war. You can’t break all the SJW pens, and especially now in light of self-publishing and the Internet, you can’t even shut down their means of communication.

Break the Hugos? Guess what — people will raise up other awards and honor them, and look to them for what to read, and what to dream about. I know quite a few authors who’d rather win a Tiptree than a Hugo, because of what it says about their writing.

It’s not coincidental that Beale also cited as part of his call to arms that (again, close paraphrase) “We are the sons of the Crusades, and daughters of the Inquisition” — two other failed attempts at warfare, one traditional, one cultural.  Leaving aside the sheer folly of identifying one’s self with the losing side, let’s look at what the two have in close common: An autocratic central leader, who even so demonstrated the limitations of his power in defeat: the men occupying the office of Pope.

Did they take and hold the Holy Land? Only in a very narrow viewpoint. Did they stomp out heresy? Only in a few places, and only at the cost of establishing a reputation as intolerant torturers that haunts them centuries later.

These are defeats — even the “victories” (like the Albigensian Crusade) were Pyrrhic in the long run.

Because you can’t fight a culture war the same way you fight a conventional war. You don’t even fight it the way you fight a 4th-generation war, that Mr. Kratman is fond of referring to.

The places in the U.S. where the most porn per capita are consumed, IIRC, are the most conservative states. The efforts to ban liquor failed, the efforts to ban marijuana are failing. Obscenity bans fell in the 20th century like corn before the scythe.

In order to win a “culture war”, you can’t defeat your opponent by eliminating them; it’s been tried, again and again and again, and it’s failed, again and again and again. If Mr. Beale and Mr. Wright and Mr. Kratman want to fight that kind of war, all they will reap is defeat, and all they will cause is unnecessary pain.

To “win” a culture war for your values, Mr. Wright, you will need to persuade us through your writing and your example that they are better.  Mr. Beale, trashing an award with bad behavior is only going to make your cause look worse, and ensure that more people will write against you, and write the sort of thing you don’t want to see.  Mr. Kratman, even if you did descend to violence, history shows you’d still lose — and, unless you hold overwhelming power, you’d suffer the same fate as the Iranian cleric who pronounced a fatwah against Salman Rushdie — watching much of the rest of the world align behind him, no matter what his particular merits or individual problems.

The only way to win a culture war is not to wage one; to abandon the metaphor and attempt to win hearts and minds in the marketplace, in the library, in the coffeeshop, by setting a better example and seeing that people will follow you.

I suspect, from everything I’ve read on various Puppy blogs, that this call will fall on deaf ears; the same ears that hear “Hey, you had a leg up — not a sin, but please recognize it?” as “You’re a terrible person and should feel guilty for everything a minority ever suffered” are not likely to take what I have to say to heart. Perhaps it will be read as weakness; perhaps it will be read as an attempt to divert them because they’re winning.

I’ll leave you with this, from SF, and then from history: SF fandom has a lot in common with Iain Banks’ Culture — loosely bound, with not too many rules, willing to take a lot before getting hostile.  But it is also filled with people who work long hard hours writing books, running conventions, writing zines and blogs and the like, who are quite capable of going from “Hey, who should we invite as Guest of Honor to our con” to “OK — what did that disgusting cretin say, and how can we deal with him” when pressed.  Don’t fuck with the Culture.

(I will note that the Culture has also shown similar reactions to people who went, in its view, too far in other directions — Requires Hate being one example, but the kerfuffles and reactions about various harassment issues, etc. are not to be forgotten.)

And then we get to classical China. The narrative (only somewhat supported by history, but worth noting regardless) is that barbarians would invade China, take control — and then be absorbed and co-opted. Again, and again, and again.  SF/F is a very large culture, and anyone trying to capture it from “without” (a position that I submit anyone who goes ‘I don’t care about the Hugos’ and ‘conventions are filled with the most disgusting people you will meet outside a refugee camp’ – a.k.a. Mr. Beale) will have at most the same effect; their names will be known for a little while, before they sink beneath its surface, leaving no ripples.

No ripples, and oblivion — culture warriors, that is the best you can hope for. Now, is it really worth all the stress and effort on your part, and the pain you will cause other people, for that?

And if it is worth it, just to cause the pain to other people — look in the mirror and ask what that makes you.

(A hint: people consider Marat a monster, because he advocated cutting off heads to save millions more.  He was not the kind to advocate cruelty and pain for its own sake.  That is what you would be doing. Do you wish to position yourself further out the scale?)


2 thoughts on “On Culture War

  1. I think there’s a touch of naivete in this, my friend. OF COURSE they want to go to that much effort just to cause pain. That is their victory condition in the first place. The rest is partially window dressing, and partially ways of *showing* that they have caused sufficient pain for their preferences — e.g. burning down the Hugos; or at least sweeping enough categories, against enough opposition, that they can feel confident that there are some very unhappy people that night.

    The goal of culture warriors — the ones who actually fight physically for their ’cause’ rather than attempt to win hearts and minds as you suggested — has always been pain. It is the ultimate loser’s mentality, in the sense that it comes from such a deep and certain conviction that they cannot possibly win that they often don’t even have a clear picture of what victory would look like. Therefore, the best world they think of as actually attainable is a stalemate much like the present… a world in which they exist, and their opponents exist, and neither side has conclusively won or lost; but their opponents are *suffering*.

    It is the mindset of the suicide bomber. It is the mindset of those who go to court to fight for the right to deny cakes to people getting married — not to deny them marriage licenses, or officiants, or make any change which could have the slightest impact on whether or not the couple is actually married, notice; just to deny the already-married people whatever the CW *can* deny them in the way of celebration and joy. It’s the mindset of the various kids (mostly Straight White Males; this is not coincidence) who shoot up their own schools, as a “punishment” for the people whom they perceive as having bullied them, before turning their weapons on themselves. It was the mindset behind the Inquisition, and it’s why they considered themselves to be winning right up until they were reined in and made to stop doing that stuff anymore… they might not be making any more good Catholics, but they *sure were making all the evil folk SUFFER*.

    Humans go a little crazy when they cannot perceive any reachable path to victory. Often, that craziness takes the form of choosing a victory condition which they *can* meet, even if it isn’t one which objectively does them any good whatsoever… and one of the most popular is to hurt the people whom they perceive as the ones who are winning instead. It’s a way of playing spoiler — they can’t win, but they can make sure we don’t either, or at least that we don’t enjoy it.

    Yes, it is worth that much to them. It’s worth everything to them. Because it is the only form of victory that they believe they can have. If we’re going to stop them from doing these things — and by “they” I mean everyone who takes this approach, not just the Puppies — we will somehow need to find a way to show them a better victory condition; one which is obtainable *and* does them more good than raw revenge does. It won’t be easy, since anybody who is that unable to perceive a path to victory from where they stand is kinda by definition not very good at imagining better futures or believing them possible. But without that, they certainly won’t stop hurting others… it’s all they’ve got to work for.


  2. Ah; I think I see, and, indeed, have been taken in.

    Though I suspect that I am not alone there.

    I find myself wondering if there is not (as is not uncommon) a drastic split between the leaders of a culture war and its followers — where the followers do, indeed, expect victory (but will thrill to suffering in the meantime) while the leaders know that defeat is inevitable, but persist in the war both for the reasons you give — hurting people because they can — and because, well, they’re the leaders, and if they don’t fan the flames, their followers will go elsewhere, and the leaders will lose power.

    Sadly, that model suggests a constant boiling-up of new leaders even when the old ones are defeated/retire/engage in bucket soccer, which is not a hopeful model either.

    It gives me a bit of hope that in the microcosm of SF/F, “Go found your own award” may seem a better victory condition than Puppies V-to-infinity, if the Puppy campaigns fail to achieve any more tangible victory than “Hey, a lot of people yelling!”.

    On the other hand, given that most of the U.S.’ culture-war institutions are of the “we produce hot air, voter lists, and outrage, if you send us money!” variety, I am probably once again being overoptimistic.


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